The last 12 months have seen the release of two biopics about British musical icons, both directed by Dexter Fletcher (even if one was uncredited). Last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody—the story of Queen and its legendary frontman Freddie Mercury—was in the conversation for awards almost immediately. Not unfounded, it then saw four Oscars go its way, including best leading actor for Rami Malek, the man that brought Freddie to life again.
Now’s the turn of Elton John and Rocketman, an uber-stylized biopic starring The Kingsman films’ Taron Egerton. Rocketman is an unflinching retelling of Elton John’s life and uses his music to great effect, something which has already had critics saying it’s a better film than Bohemian Rhapsody. So, come awards season next year, will Rocketman’s filmmakers be in the conversation for some awards of their own?
But with these two projects so close together, we wanted to look at how they went blow-for-blow. So here are five things we think Rocketman does better than Bohemian Rhapsody (and five things it doesn’t).
10 Better: The Film’s Main Relationship
Bernie Taupin and Elton John go hand-in-hand. Jamie Bell plays the singer’s long-time lyricist and best friend in Rocketman, and it’s a very convincingly presented relationship that’s sweet and tender. Bernie represents a steady ship for Elton John and is someone that he uses to check in with reality. It’s also pretty poignant that he’s the only person that went to see him when he was in rehab.
The movie makes a point of saying that, in 45 years, the two haven’t had an argument, and even though they exchange harsh words, they don’t even need to make up. And Jamie Bell plays the character with such heart that you can see that there’s nothing but love between them.
9 Worse: The Voice
A lot was talked about how Rami Malek would be able to keep up with the incredible vocals of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody in the run-up to the film’s release. Thanks to some very clever sound engineering, the movie did a great job with the voice. Throughout the movie, not only do the vocals sound great, but they feel like Freddie’s.
This had to be done because Mercury had such a distinctive voice. And while Taron’s performances are very accomplished indeed, his voice isn’t as close to Elton’s as Rami’s was to Freddie’s. Both work for their respective films, though, because Rocketman’s music is an interpretation of Elton’s, while Bohemian Rhapsody is a realistic depiction of Queen’s.
8 Better: The Star’s Reality
To say that Rocketman is ‘unflinching’ is something of an understatement. Elton John’s been on record this last week saying that he fought to make sure his story wasn’t a PG-13-rated movie because he hasn’t had a PG-13 life. And that’s evident throughout Rocketman.
The sequences of drug use and sex are fairly explicit and show exactly the experiences Elton has had. A Mumsnet user review of the film went viral last week after discussing the sex scene between Taron and Richard Madden, who plays John Reid, Elton’s manager and love interest. Reid, who doesn’t come off well in Rocketman, is coincidently the other connection between the two movies, as he was also the manager of Queen and is played by Aidan Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody.
7 Worse: The Look
If we were all asked to draw a picture of Elton John, he could be in any number of the elaborate costumes and looks he’s sported over the years. And while Rocketman’s costume design is incredible, Bohemian Rhapsody is better as far as the central character’s key look goes.
When many people think of Freddie Mercury, it’s him in his blue jeans, white tank top with cropped black hair, and black mustache. And not only did the costume designers nail this, but the make-up on Rami Malek is also really something. At several points throughout the movie, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was actually Mercury on screen. To boil it down: if this were a battle of the false teeth, Bohemian Rhapsody would take it.
6 Better: Musical Arrangement
The use of music throughout Rocketman is something really special. A movie with big musical numbers, Rocketman’s use of Elton John’s songs is very different from Bohemian Rhapsody’s relationship to Queen’s music. While Queen’s performances and music are used as key story points all the way through Freddie’s story, Rocketman rearranges the songs and ties them into times in Elton’s life in a really interesting—but chronologically inconsistent—way.
While this does mean they’re not in the right order—The Bitch is Back is sung by a 10-year-old Elton John, for example—this artistic license when it comes to the music allows for some powerful musical numbers and a really great, original-feeling soundtrack. Saturday Night’s Alright is a particularly high point with a huge musical arrangement that sees Kit Connor as a teenaged Elton start the song before Taron Egerton takes over and executes a big dance number.
5 Worse: The Humor
Rocketman has elements of humor to it, but it’s much more of a stylistic musical than a comedic jaunt. Bohemian Rhapsody, on the other hand, has some great lines between the band members which add a great sense of humor to the movie.
It also has characters who have clearly been exaggerated to act as comic relief. While it took many a long time to notice that it was Mike Myers under the makeup as Ray Foster, he had some great lines, including one really specific and really funny Wayne’s World joke.
4 Better: Style & Direction
Dexter Fletcher has created an incredibly stylized movie in Rocketman—it’s a telling of Elton John’s story from the singer’s own point of view. That means that while Bohemian Rhapsody was a much more straightforward telling of Freddie’s story, Rocketman frequently verges on the surreal because that’s how Elton saw that moment in his life.
This is mostly seen in Taron Egerton’s performances as Elton throughout Rocketman, which includes dance numbers, floating audience members, and a brilliant sequence set to Pinball Wizard where a spinning camera allows for Taron to cycle through several of Elton’s most famous costumes and live performances. And it’s not just the performances: representing Elton’s off-stage antics, there are sequences of drug use that are more than just trippy. They’re incredibly accomplished pieces of filmmaking.
3 Worse: Relation To The Outside World
Throughout Bohemian Rhapsody, it provided links to the outside world to give context to what was going on with Queen at that time. This was through news reports in the background, references to other artists, and dialogue about what styles of music were popular when Queen recorded certain songs.
This is something that’s missing from Rocketman. It’s a very insular film that focuses solely on Elton’s exploits without many relations to what was going on externally. You see him aging and growing, but that’s really the only indication. This is likely done purposely, as for a lot of Elton’s life in the spotlight, he was unaware of his surroundings, acting purely out of his own self-interests.
2 Better: Drama
Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of Freddie Mercury without much pomp and circumstance. And while he’s had his troubles, it ties up his story neatly in a bow. Rocketman, on the other hand, almost relishes in Elton John’s pain and the loneliness he’s experienced. It’s this that tests Taron Egerton’s mettle as a dramatic actor, letting him really shine as Elton John.
Twinning his performance with Dexter Fletcher’s stylistic and storytelling choices makes for a much more dramatic movie than Bohemian Rhapsody.
1 Worse: No Iconic Performance
Elton John has had many iconic performances throughout his career, but none are as famous as Queen’s appearance at Live Aid in 1985. This performance is one that’s considered by many as one of the best performances—not just of Queen’s, but of anyone's.
And this sequence in Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t disappoint on any level. The film could have ended with Freddie walking onto the stage at the old Wembley Stadium, but instead, the filmmakers doubled down, recreating the performance step for step. The attention to detail in this sequence is outstanding; you can even watch it side-by-side with footage of the actual performance to see just how well it’s executed.