Bohemian Rhapsody has become the benchmark for biopics. Its phenomenal box office alone, $900million and counting, guarantees it a place in Hollywood history. The critics famously tore it apart and some fans protested in whitewashed the uncomfortable extremes of Freddie’s life. Most of all, Freddie is not around to put his side of the story. Rocketman, however, tries something much bolder as it mixes fantasy sequences with gritty scenes of sex and drugs. But how much has Elton John been involved? And does it work?
Bohemian Rhapsody was so successful because it set out to be a celebration of Freddie, the music and the band. It is a triumphant story, tinged with the sadness of what was to come but cleverly choosing to end on a high point.
Rocketman attempts something a lot more complex.
It succeeds thanks to a spectacular central performance from Taron Egerton and the palpable awareness that Elton himself is speaking through this film. Egerton revealed that the music legend let him read personal journals which have never been made public.
The film does not shie away from the almost unbearable loneliness and self-loathing felt by a man who appeared to have it all.
This is clearly informed by Elton himself, baring his soul and reliving decades of self-destruction as he was denied love by his parents, abused by his manager and lover John Reid and hounded by the press, desperate to get a salacious kick from his torment.
Reid even says: “I’ll still be collecting my 20 per cent long after you’ve killed yourself.”
The movie is able to survive all this because we all know there was a happy ending. Elton accepted himself, embraced his sexuality and found love with David Furnish and their children.
The running motif throughout the fantasy sections is Elton seeing visions of himself as a young boy who just wanted a hug from his father, who just wanted to be loved.
One of the most beautiful moments in the film comes at the end, after reliving all the agonies and ecstasies of fame and fortune, Elton is in group therapy when the boy appears again and asks for a hug. Finally, Elton and the audience understand it can only, could only, ever come from one person.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a simple film, telling a simple narrative with a few conveniently rejigged scenes and timelines to ensure a smooth ride. It is cathartic for the audience because it allows us to celebrate Freddie, revel in that extraordinary music and remember the tragedy of his awful death without having to relive it. Ultimately it is exhilarating and triumphant and leaves the audience on high.
Rocketman plunges us into the heart of Elton’s suffering and most of the musical numbers are conveyed with fantasy elements, beautifully filmed, but one step away from reality. The meat of the film is the uncomfortable exposure of family neglect, cruelty and emotional abandonment. His mother tells him he will never be loved, his father can’t bear to touch him. His manager seduces him and then callously throws away Elton’s love.
Rocketman is a harder film to watch because it is closer to the truth of being human. It is full of colourful, flashy sequences, unlike anything most people will ever imagine, let alone live through. Yet it forces us all to confront the painful truths of our own fears and failings.
Ultimately, all films should only be judged on what they set out to do. Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are very different films about similar subjects, and both emphatically succeed on their own terms.
ROCKETMAN IS OUT NOW