Let’s make some things clear right from the start. If people have seen last year’s Freddie Mercury (and Queen) biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, they’ll be unable to resist comparing it to brand-new Elton John movie Rocketman.
Again, the audience watches the life of a complicated, gender-non-conforming rock star of the 70s and 80s unfold: from the early-day dingy bar gigs and struggle to get noticed, to chart-topping success, followed by a tumble into the embrace of excess and bad influence. Our hero pushes away true friends, succumbs to self-loathing and loneliness, until they have a turnaround moment and course-correct their life. That’s the formula when adapting real-life biographies for the big screen. And both Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman methodically tick all the boxes.
Now Rocketman is hands-down the better-made film of the two, demonstrating a cinematic flair to match the over-the-top costumes of the music icon it centres on. Rocketman blends reality and fantasy, integrating many of Elton John’s famous songs into proceedings through full-blown musical numbers. Dance troops scamper across the screen, characters float through the air, and the camera swirls around in lengthy, apparently unbroken (though clearly CGI-enabled) takes.
This creative device isn’t used all the time but such unconventionality may put off viewers who exist on a purely mainstream movie diet, and appreciated the earth-bound straightforwardness of Bohemian Rhapsody. There were no flights of fancy with that Oscar-winning release, although, in a weird coincidence, Rocketman’s director Dexter Fletcher was the same man who stepped in uncredited to replace Bryan Singer on the real-life rock band tale.
Regardless, Rocketman is a more sombre movie than Bohemian Rhapsody. Audiences won’t be chuckling throughout the way they did with the crowd-pleasing, largely-neutered-to-be-accessible look at Freddie Mercury. Rocketman may be colourful and surreal, but the fantastic is anchored by its melancholy, authentic-feeling core.
Elton John – real name Reginald Dwight – is a shy, sensitive boy who grows up denied of affection and emotional support from everyone except his grandmother. His musical gift is his escape, and his flamboyant stage persona a mask, but deep down he’s extremely lonely, willing to put up with exploitation from many around him for the occasional scrap of love.
That may not sound dissimilar to Bohemian Rhapsody, but Rocketman doesn’t sanitise (expect gay sex) or insist that any real-life figures are entirely blameless. Whereas Brian May, who was heavily involved in the making of Bohemian Rhapsody, was depicted in that movie as practically having a halo, here Elton John’s songwriting partner and best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is shown walking away in key instances when Elton needs him. Most importantly, Elton himself is very self-aware, cognisant of his destructive behaviour, apologetic when necessary, and it makes him more relatable; more real.
Now Rocketman isn’t perfect. It’s far from subtle, and the film is afflicted by the common movie-bio problem of needing to cram in key real-life events, even if they’re never really explored. For example, John’s marriage to Renate Blauel is given a shorthand treatment and covered in under five minutes. By contrast, Bohemian Rhapsody played fast and loose with historical truth to create a specific kind of movie experience.
In the end I suspect that everyday cinema audiences may actually enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody more. Rocketman is emotionally meatier and more artistic but it’s also a personal story that follows a path to quiet self-realisation and self-love. I just don’t know if that can compete with a bombastic, stadium-scale moment of triumph, however artificially constructed that feel-good instance may be.
Last Updated: June 3, 2019