All any ardent moviegoer wants to talk about lately seems to be the death of the monoculture and the lack of originality in Hollywood these days. And while I would at least challenge (if not outright refute) both of these ideas, they do have a point when all is said and done. Popular culture in the twenty-first century is increasingly defined by compartmentalized fandoms rather than all-consuming mass appeal: niche markets of limited appeal carving out their own little territories against a larger, increasingly digitized landscape. In fact, in many ways, 2018 represents the death of the last vestiges of the old monoculture, a time when everybody read the same books, watched the same movies, listened to the same music and tuned into the same TV shows; it has already seen the end of HBO’s monstrously popular Game of Thrones, the end of the industry defining Infinity Saga and, a few short months from now, will see the end of the ongoing Skywalker Saga that has captured the popular imagination since the late 1970s. And in a world where the only cultural products to get funding are sequels, prequels, spinoffs and tie-ins, ending anything – even if only in part – is a worrying prospect for many on the outside.
And yet, despite all of this, one of the big success stories from last year’s crop of movies was Bohemian Rhapsody (2018): a musical biopic tracing the early success of the band Queen that proved to be nearly as popular as its storied source material. Despite its sharply divided critical reception – in which I myself decried the film’s flaccid depiction of iconic leading man Freddie Mercury – it drew enthusiastic audiences in the world over to watch now-disgraced director Bryan Singer cycle his actors through Queen’s greatest hits, their titanic Live Aid performance and up-and-coming A-lister Rami Malek impressive recreation of Mercury’s one-of-a-kind stage presence (made all the more impressive in the film due to Malek’s need to fight through whatever godawful-distracting mouth prosthetics they made him wear in order to simulate Mercury’s abundance of teeth).
Before the dust had settled on its theatrical run, Bohemian Rhapsody had made nearly a quarter of a billion dollars domestically and almost four times that worldwide. That year, it was the tenth-highest grossing movie in the United States and the sixth-highest grossing movie on the planet, sandwiched between superhero mainstays Venom (2018) and Aquaman (2018). At that year’s Academy Awards, it was nominated for a total of five awards and won four, making it the most-awarded movie at that year’s celebration. Not bad for a movie that was, from my estimation at least, one of the worst major releases from all of 2018.
And, by all accounts, the newly-released Rocketman (2018) should have been just as awful. This time tracing the meteoric arc of gay British rock star Elton John, whose complicated relationship with his father lead to wanton drug use, hedonism and personal estrangement after becoming a superstar (instead of that of gay British rock star Freddie Mercury, whose complicated relationship with his father lead to wanton drug use, hedonism and personal estrangement after becoming a superstar), its director (Dexter Fletcher) was the same man that they brought in to finish the job that Bryan Singer started after that first director was removed from Bohemian Rhapsody due to his increasingly erratic (and historically grotesque) behavior. Both movies were “authored” biopics, meaning that the (surviving) musicians withheld use of their million-dollar song listings unless their idealized version of events were depicted on screen. And while both had a dependable catalog of music to draw from, John’s is perhaps less widely celebrated stateside and comes with a far more complicated set of baggage than even Mercury’s greatest hits.
So while on paper this should have been the exact same kind of movie from start to finish, nothing could be further from the truth when comparing the end products. Whereas Bohemian Rhapsody was a listless forgery of real-life events, Rocketman snaps and sparkles with the same electric-pop energy that instilled John’s own music. While Malek grants us a surface-level facsimile of Mercury’s broad stage mannerisms, leading man Taron Egerton (of Kingsman fame) gives what feels like a stark and emotionally honest portrayal of a frequently troubled man often at war with himself despite – or maybe because of – his own continued success. In as much as Bohemian Rhapsody’s tiresome lip syncing felt predictably sterile when projected up on the big screen, Egerton’s breathtaking spin on John’s familiar arrangements, and paired with the magical realism of Fletcher’s half-musical direction, was engrossing from the film’s first scene (bursting out from John’s group therapy session and into the emotionally fraught days of his childhood). And where Bohemian Rhapsody pulls away from the R-rated truths of Mercury’s sordid private life, Rocketman dives headlong into them, with several luscious love scenes and copious amounts of verisimilitudinous drug use.
Rocketman is a new kind of musical biopic for a new kind of era in studio filmmaking: one less concerned with dates and facts as it is with the emotional reality of a man’s life, revisited from the present day – sometimes guarded, sometimes laid bare – and never pretending to be anything more than the subjective truth of the man at its center. The choreography is energetic and flows brilliantly between scenes. The songs are well-suited to the task of providing the sonic backdrop to John’s life (with particular shout-outs to excellently-rendered sequences using Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, easily my favorite Elton John song, and I’m Still Standing). Egerton (who plays the adult John) and Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley (who play the younger versions of the man, then known as Reggie Dwight) are remarkable talents, all three of which can impressively carry a tune that I wouldn’t have thought possible outside of trained and infinitely more experienced musicians.
Rocketman deserves no less success than its floundering forebear, although its necessary R-rating will invariably eat into its box office potential and some of the year’s forthcoming cinematic offerings could potentially lock it out of serious Oscar contention. It is every inch the Elton John biopic that we deserved to see, and every inch the kind of movie that Bohemian Rhapsody should have been all along. And in the wake of these movies’ successive successes, expect to see a lot more musical biopics hitting theaters in the years to come. But whether they take Bohemain Rhapsody’s tired-but-proven formula or Rocketman’s inspired approach to the subject remains to be seen. And it’s that distinction between the two that will make all the difference between this being a welcome change of pace for studio-made blockbusters or a dolesome drudgery of half-baked biopics.