Elton John biopic Rocketman opened to strong reviews - and only further highlighted the many problems of Bohemian Rhapsody. After the Queen biopic won four Oscars, including Best Actor for Rami Malek, and became one of the highest grossing films of 2018, it seemed inevitable that a slew of films about beloved musicians and bands would follow in its footsteps. Despite the mixed reviews – and the controversy surrounding its director, Bryan Singer – Bohemian Rhapsody was a real money maker that emphasized how much cash there was to be mined from the devoted fan-bases of these icons.
Rocketman, based on the life and music of Elton John, had been in the works for many years before Bohemian Rhapsody reached theaters. At one point, Tom Hardy was attached to play the lead. Fans’ fears of a historical whitewash were raised when a rumor began to swirl that Paramount wanted gay sex scenes cut from the film in order to meet a PG-13 rating, but those thankfully turned out to be untrue. The end result is a very entertaining movie that, while remaining a by-the-numbers biopic, is vibrant, well crafted, and more interested in the truth than Bohemian Rhapsody ever was.
Rocketman follows Reginald Dwight from his youth as a child piano prodigy to the beginning of his musical partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and his ascent to the peak of fame, all while his life spirals out of control. Richard Madden plays his manager and lover John Reid, and Bryce Dallas Howard plays his mother. The screenplay comes courtesy of Lee Hall, best known for Billy Elliot and its subsequent stage adaptation (which John provided the music for), while directorial duties fall to Dexter Fletcher. The actor turned director has made four films, including Eddie the Eagle with Egerton, but also garnered a lot of headlines for being the replacement director on Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired. He received an executive producer credit for his work, but was not credited as director due to DGA rules (Singer is the sole credited director on the film). With all that in mind, it’s hard not to compare the two films, but there’s really no competition: Rocketman is by far and away the better film.
Rocketman is a Proper Musical
Musicals and musical biopics are not always the same thing. Most biopics of bands and musicians follow the latter formula, prominently featuring performances of their best known songs but not employing the structures or creative tools of the musical. Musicals that also act as biopics are not unheard of on film but are more commonly found on stage, as seen in popular Broadway shows like Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carol Kane Musical. The song are used to tell the story rather than be mere performances within a larger narrative.
Interestingly, Rocketman is a full-on musical, one where people randomly break out into lavish song and dance numbers. There are plenty of Elton John concerts woven into the narrative, but most of the music appears in major set pieces that blend fantasy and reality. It’s all very fitting for an Elton John biopic, given the musician’s famously dramatic stage performances and costuming (which is on full display here). Such scenes lend a certain kind of vibrancy to the film that Bohemian Rhapsody sorely craved, even if Rocketman falls into similar plotting problems (for better or worse, it does everything you expect a biopic to, from the spinning headlines of John’s success to the scornful take-downs by his skeptical parents). You get a sense of why people love this music and what it meant to Elton John to create it, and its unabashed camp nature makes it a far more uplifting experience than it would have been if every song was just another concert scene. It’s a formula that lends itself well to the inevitably sing-along screenings that will follow.
It's Not Afraid to Tell a Warts And All Story
Rocketman is not aiming for ingenuity with its take on the biopic. This is still a very formulaic movie, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes to the biopic genr, it can lead to a lot of tired clichés that are beyond parody. One of the major failings of Bohemian Rhapsody came in how much it adhered to the most basic conventions of biopics, hitting every expected beat and adding nothing new to the narrative. However, it also did all of that while cleaning up the rougher edges of history for a PG-13 audience. The famously debauched parties Freddie Mercury threw, for example, were reduced to a quick drink and some scornful looks from the rest of the band in Bohemian Rhapsody, while his sexuality was treated as something to be ashamed of. It was the project of an estate with axes to grind – primarily those of the primary executors of the brand, Bryan May and Roger Taylor – and as a result the story and Mercury’s narrative greatly suffered.
Rocketman is not free of the guiding hand of an estate. John was heavily involved with the project and his husband, David Furnish, is one of the main producers. However, the movie itself doesn't try to hide John’s rougher edges or how much of a self-confessed jerk he was for many years. He took a lot of drugs, had a lot of sex, treated people badly, and sank into a deep depression, in part aided by a shady manager. He is shown in a bad light in a way that Mercury was in Bohemian Rhapsody, but without the unnecessary moralizing or outside agendas. John is still in control of his story here but he isn’t hiding anything and nor does he have any band members or colleagues trying to shift the narrative in their favor at his expense.
This is especially evident in the depiction of John’s sexuality. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, the narrative does not needlessly connect his lavish lifestyle, unhappiness, or addiction issues to his sexuality, and when he does have sex (something Bohemian Rhapsody never showed), it’s a happy moment, even though the relationship itself fails. Given John and Mercury’s statuses as gay icons and how their personas were shaped by queerness and its aesthetic, it’s striking to see how one film embraces that while the other goes out of its way to avoid it.
It Has a Better Leading Performance
Rami Malek may have won an Oscar for his performance as Freddie Mercury, but it’s a piece of acting that is hampered by circumstance and bad teeth. It’s an impersonation more than a fully fleshed performance, but it’s also something that Malek was constrained by in large part because the film itself gives him so little to do beyond recreate iconic concert moments. There’s little room for him to explore Mercury’s emotional core because the script is too concerned with hitting all the expected beats. In many ways, it’s a standard biopic performance, but that’s also something that many fans wanted and that the Academy adores so Malek hardly suffered.
However, Taron Egerton is tasked with doing far more than Malek was and he pulls it off with far greater skill and charisma. Not only does he have bigger dramatic moments to perform, such as Elton’s meeting with his father once he’s already become famous, but he also has to do his own singing. Egerton’s voice doesn’t wholly resemble Elton’s but it’s pretty damn close in many of the big numbers, and there’s an undeniable edge to seeing an actor do the singing themselves. It’s understandable why Malek lip-synched – Mercury’s voice is so distinct and extremely difficult to replicate – but he was hampered by terrible sound mixing (that inexplicably won an Oscar). Egerton’s full force performance comes with real weight in terms of those big musical numbers and that’s something that is tougher to replicate with dubbing, or at least dubbing as slapdash as that in Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s no wonder Rocketman has garnered Egerton the best reviews of his career.
Rocketman is by no means a perfect movie. It is still too formulaic for its own good and, even in its willingness to descend into Elton John’s darkest moments, polished in a way that reveals its estate meddling. Any biopic that chooses to so stridently stick to that age-old formula will undoubtedly encounter the same problems and Rocketman is no exception. It is, however, an immensely enjoyable film in large part thanks to a striking lead performance and a true understanding of what it is about Elton John’s music that audiences love so much. That will make it extremely popular with audiences and could bode well for Taron Egerton come Oscar season.