Elton John and Freddie Mercury are rock and roll’s two most enduring queer legends, and with their big-screen biopics being released less than a year apart, the films were always going to be compared to one another. Bohemian Rhapsody was a box office smash and awards-bait hybrid, securing Rami Malek an Oscar for Best Picture and raking in over $900 million, but was heavily criticized for the way it treated Mercury’s queerness — namely, all but erasing it. But after seeing Rocketman in London ahead of the UK premiere last week, I can definitively say that it is gay, honey.
The biggest issue with Bohemian Rhapsody was that it was as Freddie Mercury is dead, his story was told through the lens of the people around him, namely his bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor, who consulted on the film. Because of that, we got their version of Mercury’s life, one where his sexuality was what broke up their band, where his relationship with Jim Hutton was treated as an anecdote while his romance-turned-friendship with Mary Astin was the film’s real (straight) love story.
But Elton John has worked for years to bring his story to the big screen, and Rocketman is his story through his own eyes, meaning every inch of it is as flamboyantly over the top as he is. Much has been made of Rocketman’s groundbreaking gay sex scenes, a first for a major studio film, and it’s certainly refreshing to see queer sex treated rather nonchalantly in a movie this big. But it’s John’s constant questioning of whether or not he’ll ever find love and his messy relationship with boyfriend/manager John Reid that make Rocketman a much more human depiction of a queer man than Bohemian Rhapsody even tried to be.
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman doesn’t flinch from painting an unsavory portrait of the rock icon. The framing device of the film is John’s recounting of his life in rehab after decades of heavy drinking and drugs, and despite giving the audience plenty of evidence as to why Elton is so messed up — an absentee father (Steven Mackintosh), a vicious mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), Reid’s casual cruelty — it holds him accountable for his own behavior. Bohemian Rhapsody, more than anything, presented Freddie Mercury’s queerness as villainous, with the singer's musician/boyfriend Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) as the avatar of his unsavory, hedonistic gay life.
But more than anything, Rocketman is just so much more fun than Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a high-camp spectacle, a true movie musical that uses John’s songs to illustrate the musician’s life story, spinning them into fantastical production numbers that are an utter delight to watch. Bohemian Rhapsody was more concerned with painstakingly recreating moments from rock history, whearas Rocketman uses artistic license to transform those moments into something truly magical. And while Mercury and John are both played by straight actors in their respective films, at least Egerton can sing — Bohemian Rhapsody was two-plus hours of Rami Malek lip synching with fake teeth and he won an Oscar for it.
All that being said, just because Rocketman is gayer than Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t mean it will be more successful. In fact, it could mean the exact opposite. Bohemian Rhapsody was palatable for mainstream audiences because it turned the life of a rock and roll weirdo into a self-serious melodrama. Rocketman allows John’s story to be as delightfully weird as it really was — it has a distinctly British sensibility. Who knows if audiences will fork over almost a billion dollars worth of cash to watch Taron Egerton writhe during a musical orgy — yes, that’s a thing — and tell his mother that he’s “fucked everything that moves.” But at the very least, queer people will get to see a major studio film that presents the life of a gay icon as it actually happened — blowjobs, sequins, cocaine, and all.