Most of the hype surrounding Rocketman contained at the very least a passing reference to Bohemian Rhapsody. To compare them is too tempting: rock biopics, British gay music artists, the 1970s, Dexter Fletcher, and lead by acclaimed performances. I’m writing this to dismiss Bohemian Rhapsody and explain why films like Rocketman, while flawed, deserve so much more attention and praise.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a hot mess. It fails to create any intimacy with it’s subjects, keeping them in a wholesome space so that the film can consistently celebrate the iconic Freddie Mercury and Queen. The darkness the film explores is hindered by it’s PG limitations; the queer representation is a surface level effort and the relationship conflicts are simplistic and explored in cliches rather than any nuance. It has some jarring editing decisions in between the onslaught of montages. Rami Malik has been rightly singled out for his outstanding performance, but the central spine of the film is the music of Queen. It is a remarkable back catalogue to choose from, essentially helping the film to a successive boosts of energy every time the story drags.
On the other hand, Rocketman is a revelation. I remember seeing Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and having my eyes opened to the way that playing with form can elevate the musical genre. I’ve always loved the musical for it’s ability to intensify feeling through the use of performance and the emphasis on spectacle and visual stimulation. Moulin Rouge! was the first time I saw how blending realism and fantasy to express story could really expand what a musical could achieve. Chicago was a similar exploration that found a new approach to subjectivity to stretch the genre further. I think we’ve lost that sense of experimentation with the musical form since. It has got boring, and it’s led to uninspired efforts like Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born.
Rocketman is a fresh kind of jukebox biopic. It immediately establishes a vague relationship with realism, letting the music open up the diegetic world of the film to some truly joyful imagery. It allows spectacle to emerge in a world detached from verisimilitude, elevating the music and delivering an absorbing emotional journey. One highlight is the performance of ‘Crocodile Rock’ at the Troubadour. Consider the choices Fletcher has made here; his artistry here creates an intensification of emotion in a way only achievable by a musical. This is brave storytelling: it’s exciting to watch, it has the power to surprise us and delivers a meaningful universal story.
At the end of the day, the film is not perfect: it has some pacing issues, some dialogue that is awkwardly clunky, it doesn’t serve it’s female characters well, and it’s really not as edgy in its R-rated material as it wants you to think it is. But it is a musical biopic that explodes from the screen with bold direction and artistry; it doesn’t settle for the the safe ‘mainstreamed’ choices of Bohemian Rhapsody. I hope Rocketman, despite the challenges, finds a significant audience so that the industry will continue to support exciting and meaningful films.