By Casey Campbell
Rocketman is a good movie. It operates as a fairly by-the-numbers biopic about a larger-than-life person, while also successfully employing the music of Elton John to inform the drama and sensationalize the fantastical elements. It’s an enjoyable movie with a defining lead performance from Taron Egerton, and some delightfully exciting musical numbers.
I wanted to offer my basic feelings on the movie, on its own, before explaining some context as to why Rocketman is a success, especially in the shadow of other recent music biopics. Rocketman is available on Amazon Prime and Hulu, so go check it out. Now, let me bring up a bad movie.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad movie. It’s a tired and insulting attempt to shoehorn a fascinating and, even more importantly for the medium, entertaining man’s life into a few hours. Not only that, but it’s done with some egregiously poor editing (like, embarrassing levels of shit editing) and a visual style that— no, sorry, there is no real style. It’s flat and bland, and yet still looks fake. It’s one of my more detested films. Here, watch a scene! It’s only a minute or so long but it’s tough to get through considering the whiplash you receive from the miasma of edits.
And if you want to cringe some more, watch the Academy Award winning editor of Bohemian Rhapsody make excuses and tout his award as if the Oscars aren’t a joke in the first place.
Why am I bringing up a shitty movie during the review of a good movie? Because it’s fun. But also because there’s a lot of things to point out regarding the differences of each film.
Biopics are always difficult to breathe fresh life into. That’s not really a criticism of the genre, as you wouldn’t complain about an excess of blood in a slasher, or funny jokes in a comedy. Two hours just isn’t enough time to tell an entire (“true”) story, without falling into the same old structure that has beleaguered biopics of the past. For that reason, I try to see past the inevitabilities. So long as the performances are honest and the story can offer what feels like a realistic human story, I’m interested. But if it has elements that prop it up even higher, in terms of creative filmmaking, then I’m on board.
Rocketman does so well what I wish Bohemian Rhapsody could have even attempted. And hell, if they did attempt to create an entertaining movie, it definitely fooled me. First of all, Rocketman doesn’t use Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s music to remind people of something they’re familiar with. And now, that sentence may wrinkle your brow. Why wouldn’t a movie about a famous band use the music that said band created? That’s not the issue. It’s how the music is implemented. Rhapsody goes for the easy and boring road: the songs are there because Queen wrote them. Rocketman takes the songs and uses them to stand in for important life events. He didn’t really perform “The Bitch is Back” when he was five years old. But the song itself contains some clear character and informs the story. God, it’s so simple, and it’s not even done amazingly well (from a story perspective, the choreography and photography is all great), but it’s enjoyable and fun and they actually tried.
Further, I’ll point out the sequence from Rocketman with “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” if only to point out that this four minute scene has more energy and life than the entirety of Bohemian Rhapsody. Okay, now I’m getting petty. But at the same time, and I used this word earlier, it’s insulting to the memory of Freddie Mercury that his movie (award winning, though not exactly acclaimed) is so lame and squeaky clean. It tries to prop him up as something other than what he was: a human.
Elton John is portrayed as a human in Rocketman, and it’s still able to be fantastical and have fun with itself. And while I’m sure a bunch of stuff in Rocketman is equally as fictional as the stuff in Bohemian Rhapsody (bar several major fuck ups, including changing when Freddie was diagnosed with AIDS? What the hell is that about?) it at least goes the extra mile to tell a story, rather than vomit a bunch of biographical stuff at you. Rocketman is about a musician who has to find himself, no matter how difficult that may be. And at the end, you’re genuinely happy for him. Because he did it. He accomplished his goal. You watched him come up from a young man to a wildly successful musician (and I feel like I can say that as a non-spoiler if you remember that Elton John is still thriving as much as ever) and it’s all in purpose of examining the themes. You don’t see a random rehash of a dude’s life in a fairly straightforward manner, where everything is expected and nothing is exciting and the whole experience makes you annoyed by how great it could have been. Sorry, I think I was just describing the entirety of Bohemian Rhapsody there, only if you invert it. Freudian slip.
I can’t tell if my approval of Rocketman is heightened by my hatred of Bohemian Rhapsody, or if it’s just a super fun time that explores it’s full potential in the shadow of other worse films. No wait, it doesn’t matter. Bohemian Rhapsody sucks and Rocketman is sweet. The good one is available on Amazon Prime and Hulu.