The queer joy of Rocketman: How the Elton John biopic gets right what Bohemian Rhapsody got wrong
An open letter to queers concerned about Rocketman: don't be — it's a gay, proud ode to coming out
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
Last week on the opening night of Toronto's Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, as a group of us assembled outside the TIFF Bell Lightbox after watching Rocketman, there was clearly a bit of tension as we waited for the first person to announce their hot take. I decided to volunteer an opinion I hadn't exactly expected to walk out with: "Um...I think I legitimately loved it!?"
Everyone exhaled, admitting they were all a little terrified I'd hated it because they'd all loved it too. And their anxiety was not unfair: they'd all witnessed me have what was essentially a four-month meltdown over Rocketman's unofficial predecessor Bohemian Rhapsody, first because of its problematic representation of queerness and generally trash filmmaking...and then because of how it became an Oscar-winning global box office phenomenon anyway. Which is not to say they all didn't mostly agree with me — they just weren't quite as dramatic about it.
"I would have avoided you so hard at the afterparty if you hated it," one friend said, laughing. But it was no joke: I would have avoided me too. (And I did avoid the few folks I ran into that didn't like it for reasons they're clearly entitled to but also I'm tired and can't we just have a nice thing?)
Now, I'm certainly not the only one who has been very nervous about Rocketman these last few months. The on-paper similarities between it and Bohemian Rhapsody are pretty stark. Both films depict the lives of iconic queer rock stars who came to fame in the 1970s and struggled with both their sexuality and addiction. Both are rare studio films with a lead LGBTQ character, though they're written by and starring pretty much exclusively straight folks. Both are at least partially directed by Dexter Fletcher (who took over for Bryan Singer when he was fired from Rhapsody, and directed Rocketman in its entirety). They even share a character in John Reid, who managed both John and Queen and is played (very differently) by Richard Madden in Rocketman and Aidan Gillen in Rhapsody.
But to anyone apprehensive that these similarities might extend to both films sharing anything in terms of quality of filmmaking or representation of their lead character's sexuality, I say: go forth, queers. Rocketman is certainly a little superficial, but that doesn't stop it from being extremely joyous...and extremely gay (at least for a film getting this kind of release).
Starring Taron Egerton in a seismic performance that should shame any Academy member who voted for Rami Malek (not only did Egerton give actual soul to Elton John, but he actually sings!), Rocketman depicts John's life from childhood through his rise to fame, culminating with the drug and alcohol spiral that led him to get sober in 1990. This could feel like an all-too-familiar approach to the same "fame corrupts" narrative that Rhapsody mangled so badly, but Rocketman rises above the constraints of the standard biopic in part by also being...a full-fledged musical. While Queen's music was incorporated throughout Rhapsody with rehearsals, performances and a non-diegetic soundtrack, Rocketman's characters regularly burst into Elton John's songs. And as someone who has historically been pretty indifferent to his music (save a few tracks here and there) I found myself unexpectedly into every minute of it.
It helps that the lyrics to Elton John's songs — most written by his lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin, played with great sensitivity in the film by Jamie Bell — connect themselves so nicely to narrative. There's a sequence toward the beginning of the film where a young Elton John (then known as Reggie Dwight and played by Kit Connor) and his entire family (including Bryce Dallas Howard as his free-spirited though unhappy mother and Steven Mackintosh as his stern, emotionally abusive father) share verses of John's 2001 single "I Want Love." Though John recently wrote that that song is actually about Taupin wondering if as "a middle-aged man with a few divorces" he will ever fall in love again, it perfectly suits the dysfunctional Dwight family dynamic. It also sets up what Rocketman really feels like at its core: the flashiest, most jubilant and certainly most expensive coming out movie ever made.
Though John comes out to Taupin midway through the film in one of its sweetest scenes, he continues to struggle to accept himself for the remainder of the run-time, falling into both cycles of substance abuse and a dangerous romantic relationship with manager Reid (played with the most sociopathic of sexiness by Madden) as a result. These same fates were exactly what met Malek's Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, but Rocketman handles them with the R-rated realness that could have partially saved Rhapsody. Explicitly seeing both John's drug use and the escalation of his sexual relationship with Reid — resulting in the most gay sex a Hollywood studio has ever put on screen — really allows a depth of understanding in what is driving John's behaviour, all aided by how vibrant and dedicated Egerton, Madden and Bell's performances are.
This is not to say Rocketman is especially deep, but I feel like in this context it probably doesn't need to be. The road for so many queer folks to truly accept themselves and fully come out extends well beyond simply saying who we are out loud. This path and is more often than not littered with a lot of darkness, from toxic self-hatred to cycles of addiction to destructive sexual relationships. Rocketman does not hold back in showing what that looks like, and as result never feels like it's pandering to a straight audience as Bohemian Rhapsody did. But it does feel like it's keeping the path illuminated with just enough feathers and sequins to make it the truly joyful experience queer folks deserve to finally have in a big-budget musical representing their journeys. You'll walk out of Rocketman feeling proud of both yourself and Elton John for still standing, and grateful to Hollywood for maybe getting it right this time.