THE BITCH IS BACK
‘Rocketman’ Is So Much Better—and Gayer—Than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
The Elton John biopic is as fabulous, flamboyant, and fun as its legendary subject deserves, even if all the talk about a gay sex scene amounts to much ado about nothing.
I don’t want to ruffle any peacock feathers, rattle sequins, or get anyone’s codpiece in a twist, but it does have to be said: Gay people have sex.
Apologies if this isn’t news, but you wouldn’t know when heading to the cinema, in the year 2019, whether or not a movie about the life of Elton John in which he says the phrase, “I have fucked everything that moves,” depicts actual gay sex. Again, a movie about Elton John. Elton John!
Imagine having spent a lifetime delighting in the star’s flamboyant performances and reading the gossip rag stories about his life, then purchasing a ticket for a movie not expecting or, worse, not wanting to see gay sex scenes. Elton John!!!
Yet there was much talk leading up to Rocketman’s release this Friday over whether different parties that be—the studio, the actors, the director—were going to acquiesce to a late-stage panic about the film’s one explicit sex scene and tame it down, if not remove it completely.
It was an infuriating report about a movie about a LGBTQ rock icon being released so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody, which not only blushed at the idea of showing Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in the throes of passion with other men but treated his sexuality as a predatory gateway drug to a destructive lifestyle. It was also not a surprise, as that movie, despite and maybe because of this, went on to be a big fat hit and win Academy Awards.
Well, there is gay sex in Rocketman. That fact was heralded like a hosannah from the shores of the Croisette when the film premiered to a lengthy standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. The gleeful reaction was a breath of relief, but also, it turns out, an indictment of how little we’re willing to settle for and even celebrate.
There’s been so much press after Cannes breathlessly praising Rocketman for being the first studio movie to include a gay sex scene. That’s not entirely true, though this is certainly the biggest movie pitched to a mass audience to do so. And it’s all over one (very short!) scene in which Egerton’s Elton and Richard Madden’s John Reid, his former lover and manager, aggressively make out and begin stripping off their clothes. The camera shifts away just as they are about to have sex, giving a blink-and-miss-it view of a butt. Rude.
(Whatever “nude cuddle” was the subject of so many reports is not to be found.)
It’s hot, yes. It’s also so brief, and the lone example, to the point that when John later in the film boasts about having “fucked everything that moves,” you can’t help but think, has he though?
It’s a small point to complain about in a movie that is about far more than the sex this man had. Except that so much of the movie, which is centered around an addict at his breaking point looking back at all his vices and how they’ve shaped him, is very much about the sex this man had.
The most explicitly gay thing about the film is the character of Elton John thinking that he’s fat when he’s played by Taron Egerton. Still, the movie is sufficiently gayer than Bohemian Rhapsody—and, yes, that matters. It’s far more concerned with capturing John’s spirit than Rhapsody was with anything besides making the other members of Queen seem cool, certainly not doing right by Mercury.
Because of this, Rocketman is infinitely better in almost every way than Bohemian Rhapsody, to the point that people will inevitably wonder that, if it doesn’t perform as well at the box office, its “gayness” will be one of the reasons why.
The film opens with Elton John bursting through a door in a flaming-red bodysuit with flared bell bottoms, a headpiece with devil horns, heart-shaped sunglasses, and a pair of red wings so massive and ornate a Victoria’s Secret model would shed a single tear at the sight. He looks fabulous. It is the lowest moment of his life.
The glam-rock couture is brought down to earth by the fittingly sober surroundings: a group counseling session at a rehab, where John is finally checking himself in after a cocktail of addictions—alcohol, sex, cocaine, pills, and even shopping—has proven too potent for him to handle.
It’s a clever introduction to the film’s framing device: John at rehab answering counselors’ questions about his past relationships with his parents, lovers, and longtime writing partner and best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as a way of unlocking a series of flashbacks by way of fantasias. From there, we look back at his childhood, coming out, and surging career, each with surreal breaks from reality in which characters break into song, break the fourth wall, or, in some cases, break the rules of physics and gravity and start levitating.
The whole thing is fittingly unconventional, fantastical, and campy. This is a biopic about Elton John; it bloody hell should be.
But the visual tricks and dreamlike set pieces—an entire British suburb falling into step for a song-and-dance rendition of “The Bitch Is Back,” John floating above his piano, an entire number performed in a pool underwater—are an illusion. In terms of structure, storytelling, and cliches, this is very much your traditional biopic. Rocketman is proof that there can be all kinds of flair and flourish in the brush strokes, but a film can still be paint-by-numbers.
From the start, the beats are familiar. He’s a child music prodigy, and performance is his ticket out of a humdrum life. He has a mercurial, withholding father (Steven Mackintosh) who chastises him, “Don’t be soft.” His mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) swills martinis and chases each gesture of love toward her son with a stinger. “You’re choosing a life of being alone forever,” she tells him when he comes out to her, punctuating her initial insistence that she didn’t care with a dagger to the heart. “You’ll never be loved.”
There’s the obligatory montage detailing John’s rocket-launch rise to success and the perfunctory existential crisis that ensues.
All the substance abuse, the dysfunctional relationship with Reid, the outlandish costumes, the fake name (John was born Reginald Dwight), the sexual angst: It’s all because he doesn’t know what it means to be himself. “You gotta kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you want to be,” a musician he meets early in his career says. At one point, Reginald thought he knew who that was. All this fame and all these struggles later, Elton isn’t so sure.
That’s Rocketman’s revelation. Imagine an entertainer so boisterous and legendary, with that much bravery—rocking out in those costumes all those decades ago—and outlandish charisma, not being in tune with who he is.
The comparisons to Rhapsody are both maybe a little unfair but also entirely relevant. It would be reductive to measure the films against each other just because they are major rockstar biopics released close together, and especially egregious to do so just because their two subjects are queer.
But there is the unignorable trivia that Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, was brought in to finish shooting and rescue the Bohemian Rhapsody production after Bryan Singer was fired, inextricably tying the two films together. Then there’s the shared cultural impact of both, tapping into what made Bohemian Rhapsody such a phenomenon, and charging Rocketman with course-correcting the elements of that phenomenon that were so problematic.
To that regard, Rocketman lends a dignity to John’s feelings about his sexuality where Rhapsody disgraces and even demonizes Mercury’s struggle. And while Rhapsody manipulated facts of Mercury’s sexuality and AIDS diagnosis to manufacture an emotional climax in the Live Aid finale, there’s no such bastardizing in Rocketman.
In Rhapsody, Malek made inhabiting Mercury seem effortless, wearing his physicality and magnetism with ease. If Egerton seems to be working harder in Rocketman, one might argue it’s because he is: He does his own singing! There are people in both camps when it comes to whether it matters that an actor records his own vocals when playing a singer on screen, but there’s no debating that what Egerton accomplishes here is nothing less than a sensational movie star turn.
It’s true that no number in Rocketman lives up to the exhilaration of that Live Aid performance. But it also doesn’t have to rely on the thrill of that ending to justify enjoying the rest of a sluggishly paced, superficial, and poorly edited production. Rocketman is a blast from beginning to end, boasting enough Baz Luhrmann-esque razzle-dazzle and inventiveness to surprise and spellbound audiences who remember when rock was young—and still magical.