Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody are two biopics chronicling the lives of famous musicians, but they had very different fates at the box office. The latter, which came out last fall, was the long-gestating Freddie Mercury film, starring Rami Malek as the iconic Queen frontman. Despite encountering production woes (original director Bryan Singer was replaced by Dexter Fletcher during shooting) and generating backlash for its handling of its subject matter, Bohemian Rhapsody became an unlikely force on the awards circuit. Among the many accolades it received was a Best Picture nod at the Oscars and numerous Best Actor trophies for Malek.
Coincidentally directed by Fletcher, the recently-released Rocketman is a jukebox musical about the life of Sir Elton John, with Taron Egerton giving it his all in the lead role. In stark contrast from Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman was critically acclaimed, earning praise for its approach, standout musical numbers, and Egerton's performance (among other aspects). However, even though it's seen as the better film, Rocketman's box office couldn't come close to matching Bohemian Rhapsody. The Mercury biopic raced out to $51 million domestically in its opening weekend, securing the top spot on the charts. Rocketman managed $25.7 million, finishing in third. Its global total to date ($56.9 million) barely surpasses Bohemian's U.S. debut.
Given the disparity in the reviews, that's a bit surprising at first glance, but there are explanations for it. For starters, release dates played a significant role here. Bohemian Rhapsody came out in November 2018, in the thick of awards where there weren't any traditional blockbusters playing. At the time of its premiere, hits A Star is Born and Venom had already been out for a month, so there wasn't much in the way of competition. Rocketman, however, came out during the summer movie season, when there are more high-profile offerings in theaters. Not only was it going up against Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its opening weekend, Rocketman also had to contend with Memorial Day smash Aladdin (which was bigger than most anticipated) and other notable holdovers like John Wick: Chapter 3.
It's also worth noting that Bohemian Rhapsody was rated PG-13, while Rocketman was an R. That isn't to say it's impossible for an R-rated film to become a sizable box office hit, but this probably contributed to the gap between the two films' opening weekends. By nature, an R rating is going to limit a movie's potential audience; this is why most major studio tentpoles go for the PG-13 classification. The team behind Bohemian Rhapsody always wanted a more family-friendly PG-13, so that more people could see it on the big screen. Rocketman went for the hard R, wholly embracing the highs and lows of Elton John's life. John even fought to keep the depictions of drug use and sex in the film so it was a more honest portrayal of what happened. This made Rocketman a better movie, but hurt its commercial prospects.
Just because Rocketman isn't going to come anywhere near Bohemian Rhapsody's $903.6 million global total doesn't make it a disappointment. This wasn't a massive blockbuster for Paramount; Rocketman has a production budget of $40 million, a figure it has already surpassed worldwide. In all likelihood, it will turn a nice profit, especially since it should be a counter-programming option for older moviegoers in the upcoming glut of genre films in June. When looked at it that way, the summer release made sense and may help Rocketman have decent legs at the box office. Hopefully that's what happens, and Paramount gets a modest hit under their belt.