“Rocketman” is Everything “Bohemian Rhapsody” Was Too Afraid To Be
2019’s “Rocketman” was going to draw comparisons to 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that much was unavoidable. Coming out within less than a year of each other, both films give focus to musical icons of the 1970’s and 80’s, both aiming to examine the music as well as the sexuality of the film’s leads. Articles comparing the two have been popping up all over the place, even before “Rocketman” was available to a general audience, before anyone would be able to tell if that comparison was warranted.
Now that I’ve sat down for “Rocketman”, I can look back on “Bohemian Rhapsody” with even greater disdain and disappointment; comparison between the two films is required.
One is a film very clearly steered and created by straight men, and one is very clearly created by a gay man and his husband. It’s not hard to figure out which is the better movie. And I won’t pretend to be the world’s biggest Queen superfan, but I’m not the biggest know-it-all about Elton John either, so in that aspect, the movies are on pretty equal footing for me.
But, first, to those who have yet to see either — “Bohemian Rhapsody” depicts most of the career of Queen, focusing on Freddie Mercury as the lead. It’s a movie about Queen’s rise to fame as well as one about Freddie’s, uh, we’ll call it “struggle” of sexuality, culminating in the famous Live Aid performance and a text of epilogue to detail everything that came after that point. “Rocketman” is much in that same vein, chronicling Elton John’s rise to stardom as well as his struggle with self and sexuality. So, while on paper, the two films seem to be very similar in structure and in format, the execution of both makes a world of difference.
“Rocketman” is about a flawed man who happens to be gay. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about a man who is flawed because he is gay.
I watched Bohemian back sometime in February just ahead of the Oscars, more out of a sense of obligation than any real excitement (and, no, sorry, I wasn’t going to rewatch it for this article and give myself a two day rage headache). From my friends who’d seen it before me, I had noticed that all the gay men I knew hated it, and the non-gay men of my circle (straight girls, lesbians, the like) had nowhere near the intense dislike, if any dislike at all. Part of me had hoped that going into it without much investment in Queen would soften the blow of any offensive material but that’s just not what happened.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is what happens when a gay man dies and his straight friends decide hey, that band we were/are in is pretty cool, we can make a movie about it and us! Except by putting the focus on Freddie (which, in my opinion, a Queen movie should do), they put themselves in unfamiliar territory with how to tell the central story. Straight men don’t know anything about being gay. This should not be surprising.
And so, we have a movie with one — count ’em, one! — kiss between Freddie and another man. Though trust me, there’s plenty more underlying implications about his lack of heterosexuality — he struts through a gay club as “Another One Bites The Dust” plays (because AIDS, get it?), and throughout the film, his band mates and ex girlfriend get to deliver the most amazing of unsubtle, homophobic dialogue. The second (and last) scene Freddie gets with the man who was his real life husband is framed as better, less dirty because all they do is hold hands.
See, mainstream, straight audience? Freddie is still gay, but rather than contracting diseases because he’s so reckless, selfish and stupid, he has this lovely non-sexual partnership! His sexual deviancy is still going to be framed as what kills him in the end, but look, he’s learned his lesson!
I really hate “Bohemian Rhapsody”, if it wasn’t obvious, and everything it implies about gay people, the AIDS crisis, all of it.
So, awful awful Bohemian takes it’s lead’s gayness and frames it as this awful deviancy that makes Freddie responsible for his own death, and that’s gross and terrible and if prompted, I could really rip into the sinister homophobia of the film for hours. But, in very brief summary, that homophobia is where that movie failed, and now we can look to “Rocketman”.
I don’t want it to sound like quantity overrules quality, but it’s definitely relevant that “Rocketman” has both. Bohemian takes its sweet time getting to its one and only kiss between Freddie and Jim, taking place an hour into a two hour film. By contrast, I was able to be surprised by “Rocketman” within the first half hour, Elton had already been kissed by a man and had a conversation with his friends boiling down to hey, we don’t give a shit if you’re gay or not, you’re our friend.
(That aforementioned scene is powerful. In my second watch, immediately after it wraps up, my friend looked over at me with such genuine happiness; gay people notice these things, and gay creators know we notice these things.)
All of how they handle Elton’s sexuality through the film left me softly shocked in my seat. Maybe it was that Bohemian had left me so completely disillusioned to what a musician’s biopic could be, but never did I figure that “Rocketman” would embrace Elton so completely and lovingly. Undeniably, he is shown to struggle with compulsive heterosexuality and with accepting who he is; but unlike with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, he isn’t completely abandoned because it takes him a while to come to terms with himself.
Even when his mom tells him that he’ll never be loved properly, while he initially believes her, the movie never hints at the fact that you’re supposed to agree with her. There’s no indication that he wouldn’t be a coke-addicted alcoholic if he just “wasn’t choosing to be gay”, where Bohemian strongly implied that Freddie was responsible for his own death. And the end of Elton’s arc comes with a beautiful line —
“You just need to remember who you are and be okay with it”.
Self acceptance is something that likely every gay kid struggles with, myself included; it matters so deeply to have heard that.
While “Rocketman” doesn’t feature Elton’s husband, David Furnish, its not out of erasure. Rather the film ends before the time where the two met (as I understand it), and while they could’ve messed around with the timeline to change that, it really doesn’t feel like a missed opportunity. The end of the film is the only time that Elton is something of a genuinely healthy person, and the segue from the final scene into the textual epilogue feels earned; you sit through two hours watching this man hit absolute rock bottom, and you’re reaffirmed with knowing he’s sober now and happily married (properly loved, it further notes).
“Rocketman” handles its subjects with love, respect, and passion. On top of the story, the film works to be an outstanding work of art — where Bohemian was completely grounded in reality, virtually colorless, and used the songs of Queen as nothing more than background noise, “Rocketman” fully embraces its identity as a musical. It uses every color to its full potential, and works with fantasy elements in order to further elevate its visuals and its themes of self discovery and self love. This is not the quick cash-in of a popular band or artist, but a genuine project of love; everyone involved in this gave 100%, and it shows in every scene, in every performance.
Bohemian also was directed by a pedophile, and “Rocketman” was not, so, yeah, that’s another point to the later.
Ultimately, the Elton John biopic is a perfect example of why gay men need to be in charge of our own stories, and Bohemian is the perfect example of what happens when we aren’t. When straight men get their hands on the wheel, suddenly we’re the story of sexual deviants, of self-obsessed, self-destructive idiots who have to be saved from the evils of gayness by our good straight friends. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not the story of Freddie Mercury — it is the story of how his band mates saw him, and that distinction makes all the difference in the world.
“Rocketman” is not the story of a man who needs to be “saved” from his sexuality, but one about the importance of having those around you to save you from thinking you need saving. The theme of self love in the face of familial abandonment is the jewel, gently held in the center of a beautiful celebration. It surpassed my expectations the first time I saw it, and shot past even further on the second watch.
So, in honor of pride month, go check out “Rocketman”. It’s colorful, beautiful, surprisingly honest, and has Elton both in front of and behind the camera. It is through and through his story, and a good one at that.