In an article about "Rocketman" (2019), John Elton wears a gold jumpsuit, gold devil horns, and pink angel wings.

‘Rocketman’ (2019) Deserves a Second Chance

Revisiting the film that was overshadowed by the success of “Bohemian Rhapsody”
September 1, 2023
8 mins read

In November of 2018, the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit theaters and began the small but mighty trend of musical biopic dramas. The film follows the career, life and death of Freddie Mercury, frontman of rock band Queen. After the film’s release, other notable films about groundbreaking musicians were released, including the recent hit, “Elvis” (2022) and the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” (2021). The film that followed only six months after the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was “Rocketman” (2019), a biopic about the life of Elton John. 

John’s story dealt with his exploration of sexuality as a young, emerging musician in the 1970s and 80s. The film’s trailer suggested related themes and a similar concept to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” potentially making viewers disinterested in yet another rockstar biopic. 

Something that made “Rocketman” unique from other films within the genre is that the subject of the film is still alive. The film wasn’t meant to memorialize Elton John. John was the one who wanted to have the film produced in the first place. He and his husband had been pitching the idea since the 2000s but were set back by studios’ hesitance due to the potential R rating. In an interview with The Guardian, John stated, “Some studios wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so the film would get a PG-13 rating. But I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life.” 

While making a film about oneself can imply egotism, it is clear that John’s intentions to produce the film were far from selfish. In no way did the film come off as a grab for attention or a flaunt of his success. John was stubborn about swaying from his intended narrative, and it took about 20 years for him to feel as if the studios would tell his story properly. Once Paramount and New Republic Pictures decided to produce the film, John decided to keep his distance from the set. He trusted Taron Egerton to portray him, and he assigned his husband, David Furnish, to act as “eyes and ears on set every day.”

Other musical biopics tell stories of fame — outside perspectives on a person in the limelight and the impact they had on society. However, “Rocketman” is a personal narrative that anyone can draw inspiration from, not to become as successful as Elton John, but to be the hero in your own story when you need saving. Not only does the film embody this unique and powerful message, it delivers it in a way that is enjoyable, accessible and easy to understand. 

For those unfamiliar with “Rocketman,” it is somewhat abstract in its storytelling techniques. The film is in the style of a jukebox musical, using John’s songs to progress the story. The songs are performed with either large dance numbers or fantastical effects reminiscent of the magic of live musical theater. The story begins with John admitting himself to rehab in a fit of rage, dressed in one of his iconic, extravagant performance costumes. The plot is driven by his responses to the questions he is asked by his focus group, and the audience watches him relive traumatic moments throughout his life; from moments of rejection by his loved ones to moments where he fills his void of sadness with addiction. Every cut-scene back to rehab reminds the viewer where his actions landed him, but they never portray John shamefully. As he talks through the trauma, each focus group scene shows  personal growth. With every progressing scene, he sheds a piece of his costume — the version of himself he had created to avoid his tragic reality of never feeling loved. By the end of the film, he has stripped down to the truest version of himself. He finally found someone who loves him for it: himself. 

In May 2019, “Rocketman” released in theaters and grossed $25 million in opening weekend box office sales. Six months prior, “Bohemian Rhapsody” had earned double this amount at around $50 million. Both Elton John and Queen are loved so vastly and dearly by so many classic rock fans, so the success of their respective films is ultimately incomparable. One main difference between the films is that “Rocketman” is rated R while “Bohemian Rhapsody” is PG-13. This could have contributed to the difference in turn out for the two opening weekends; however,  an R rating is no excuse for the Academy’s neglect of the film. 

While “Rocketman” did receive its fair share of Golden Globe nominations and awards in 2020, the film was practically ignored when it came time for Oscar nominations. Meanwhile, “Bohemian Rhapsody” won a total of four awards at the 2019 Oscars, making it the most awarded film at the ceremony.  The success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t necessarily indicate that it was the better film.

Critic responses on Rotten Tomatoes invert the public reaction to the competing films. “Bohemian Rhapsody” stands at a mediocre 60% on the website. The Critics Consensus states, “‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ hits a handful of high notes, but as an in-depth look at a beloved band, it offers more of a medley than a true greatest hits collection.” Meanwhile, “Rocketman” stands at a solid 89%, with a Critics Consensus that suggests it’s excellence in areas the competing film fell flat, stating “It’s going to be a long, long time before a rock biopic manages to capture the highs and lows of an artist’s life like ‘Rocketman.’” 

The trampling of “Rocketman’s” success in sales and accolades has all to do with timing and marketing. The film’s real success can be found in the way it turned a true story of fame into a beautiful piece of cinema. While “Rocketman” has an 18+ rating, it is a film that everyone should sit down and watch at some point in their life. The story is timeless and applicable to the lives of anyone who has ever felt like they’re not enough. Although it has been four years since its release, it is never too late for “Rocketman” to receive the recognition that it always deserved. 

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