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5 Ways Rocketman > Bohemian Rhapsody

May 19, 2019

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As the closing credits rolled on Rocketman at the surburban New Jersey theater where I saw it, one moviegoer turned to another and said, “Well, it was no Bohemian Rhapsody.” I couldn’t agree more, although I’m pretty sure he meant it as an insult, and I see it as a compliment. I didn’t hate the Freddie Mercury biopic, but I didn’t love it either. I’m similarly ambivalent about the music of Elton John, but Rocketman soars where Rhapsody remained pedestrian. Let me count the ways it’s superior.

Taron Egerton does his own singing. I wouldn’t have given Best Actor to Rami Malek, who overly relied on his prosthetic teeth and merely lip-synced Mercury’s vocals. Vice‘s Christian Bale, on the other hand, vanished into the character of Dick Cheney. Egerton pulls off an analagous act of dramatic alchemy, transforming himself into John both physically and vocally. I was initially disappointed when I read that Egerton’s Legend co-star Tom Hardy dropped out of the role of Elton, but now I can’t imagine anyone playing him better.

It’s not a Bryan Singer movie. Long before he was accused of being a sexual predator, I found Singer guilty of being criminally overrated as a director. (I walked out of an early screening of The Usual Suspects, figuring no one would ever care about such a headache-inducingly pretentious piece of claptrap.) Rocketman‘s director, Dexter Fletcher, took over for Singer after he was fired from Rhapsody, and I choose to attribute everything good about it to the fill-in.

Rocketman takes chances artistically. Whereas Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for Rhapsody was a predictable, paint-by-numbers rock biopic, Lee Hall’s Rocketman script dares to stage musical numbers, give lyrics to other characters (apt, since John rarely writes his own words), and flirt with surrealism. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Hall and John are in sync creatively, since the scribe also wrote Billy Elliot, which the rocker turned into a transcendent Broadway show. And in a neat bit of symmetry, the original Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell, plays John’s frequent lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Rocketman doesn’t skirt around its subject’s sexuality. Rhapsody seemed to want to have it both ways, reducing Mercury’s orientation to furtive truck-stop glances and playing up his romance with Mary Austin. Rocketman, on the other hand, treats John’s marriage to Renate Blauel as the sham it was and leans into his carnal connection to manager John Reid (Game of Thrones vet Richard Madden). Small world: Reid was also a character in Rhapsody and was portrayed by another GoT alum, Aidan Gillen.

It’s not a one-man show. Malek’s Mercury dominated Rhapsody so thoroughly that the other members of Queen seemed almost interchangeable. Rocketman makes room for more actors to shine, most notably Bell, whose understated performance perfectly offsets the larger-than-life Egerton and turns the film into a platonic love story between the two men. The biggest surprise, however, is Bryce Dallas Howard’s nuanced work as Elton’s alternately supportive and selfish mum. She’s less than a decade older than Egerton and an American to boot, yet she’s completely convincing.

Oh, and one more thing: Make sure you stay through the closing credits (unlike those guys in my theater), because the filmmakers demonstrate how faithfully they recreated Elton’s outlandish outfits and other visual details of his life. To paraphrase one of his Lion King songs, that’s when you can really feel the love tonight.

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