This has been the year of the biopic. From “Bohemian Rhapsody” taking home the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama back in January, to the more recent release of films such as “Tolkien” and “The Dirt,” it seems as though movies about our favorite icons are the new hit thing, and “Rocketman” is no exception.
Despite the increasing popularity of the genre, creating a biopic can be a dangerous game. While biographical films may continue to impress at the box office, many of them have also been received with immense criticism due to their failure to accurately portray the individuals they are depicting.
It is a filmmaker’s job first and foremost to tell a good story. Under these circumstances, however, it is also their job to tell the truth, and only a slim few have succeeded in accomplishing both.
The latest in this series of biopics is “Rocketman,” a musical-style film released at the end of May detailing the life of none other than Sir Elton John. “Rocketman” takes viewers on a journey through the singer-songwriter’s life, from his early beginnings as a young boy growing up in the English countryside through his rise to stardom, concluding with the 1983 release of his iconic song “I’m Still Standing.”
With a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an astounding $25 million in box office revenue its opening weekend, “Rocketman” has been received with glowing reviews all around. True, this could largely be due to John’s toe-tapping tunes and the stand-out performances by the cast, particularly Taron Egerton’s rendition of the eccentric musician, but it also seems to be due to the fact that audiences are actually seeing a depiction of a real person, and not just an airbrushed version of a beloved star.
The question stands: How did “Rocketman” manage to pull it off? One reason could be Elton John’s role in the making of the film. As executive producer, John had a hand in almost every aspect of the film’s creation, from helping to decide what made it into the script to the day-to-day decisions of what happened on set.
The director of “Rocketman,” Dexter Fletcher, also remarked how candid John was when it came to deciding which aspects of his life went into the story. He wanted to tell the truth.
Fletcher noted that the main goal was honesty over literal fact. So while many of the songs in “Rocketman” do not show up in chronological order, all the details that are portrayed through the lyrics and story arc are true. The creators of “Rocketman” chose to go in a direction that would give audiences what they want — a riveting plot line interpreted through John’s music, all used as an avenue to show both the glamorous and gritty details of his life and career.
“Rocketman” doesn’t just showcase the ups of John’s journey. Because of the crew’s commitment to candor, it covers almost all of the important moments, especially the dark, lesser-known ones; it appears that nothing was held back when it came to showing these aspects of John’s life.
The framing device of the film shows Elton John in a rehabilitation center, seeking help for alcoholism, drug addiction and bulimia. The film also shows John’s struggles with anger management, and his romantic and business relationship with his manager, John Reid; the relationship between the two proved to be both mentally and physically abusive, which contributed to Elton John’s suicide attempt in the mid-’70s.
Another thing the film was sure not to gloss over was Elton John’s sexuality. In a move to accurately portray all facets of John’s life, the film depicts John’s multiple relationships, as well as his coming out to both his mother and his best friend.
Not only is this an extremely important part of John’s identity and story, but it was a major step forward for representation in the world of Hollywood films. In fact, “Rocketman” is the first major studio film to depict a sex scene between two men. Over the years, John has become an icon for the LGBTQ+ community. To include this aspect of John’s life in the film was not only extremely important in order to accurately portray the musician, but critical for his countless fans worldwide that look up to him.
Other films, such as the highly-regarded “Bohemian Rhapsody” — the Queen biopic focusing on the life and career of frontman Freddie Mercury — were not as successful in their depiction of iconic figures and were also not as careful in what they chose to include or leave out. When “Bohemian Rhapsody” first came out in late 2018, critics and fans alike were quick to notice how the biopic seemed to over-glamorize the life of Queen and consequently, failed to tell an in depth story. In fact, some argued that the film felt more like a run-through of Queen’s impressive discography than a film about the life of its members.
The main criticism of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” however, was the filmmaker’s failure to include details of Freddie Mercury’s life as a bisexual man and queer icon. Although there were subtle nods to Mercury’s sexuality throughout the film, it was often portrayed as more of a character flaw or downfall than anything. Because of this, the life of Freddie Mercury as portrayed in the film was inherently incomplete and did a disservice to the late icon as well as the fans who supported him.
Obviously, one glaring difference between “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” was that unfortunately, Freddie Mercury was not around to decide what to cover in the film like Elton John was. Perhaps the creators of the Queen biopic failed to film an accurate portrayal because of Mercury’s absence. Either way, “Rocketman” shows that what truly resonates with audiences is honesty.
One can hope that future filmmakers looking to make a biopic, whether the subject is deceased or not, follow the lead of Dexter Fletcher and Elton John with their spectacular showcase of both human vulnerability and triumph. After all, all audiences want is for beloved stars to be given the justice they so richly deserve.