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Bring Them ’Round Again: Classic Rock Is Hollywood’s Latest Cheat Code

Even if movies like ‘Rocketman’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ tell well-worn stories of hedonism and greedy music-industry types, they offer something truly valuable: a rich back catalog of songs

Ringer illustration

“I have fucked everything that moves,” boasts Elton John, deep in the throes of rock stardom and three-quarters of the way to rock bottom. “I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” He looks miserable, of course. Also, he is boasting to his mother, who is played by Bryce Dallas Howard and remains spectacularly unfazed. She’s heard it all before. Most likely, so have you.

This sloppy row in a fancy restaurant transpires shortly before the awkward climax of Rocketman, the new magical-realist Sir Elton biopic starring Taron Egerton (who sings the damn songs himself) and directed by Dexter Fletcher, who you perhaps recall as the guy who stepped in to rescue the unmagical 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody when original director Bryan Singer got the boot. Bohemian Rhapsody made $900 million worldwide and scored Rami Malek a resounding Best Actor win at the 2019 Oscars, having convincingly approximated Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s teeth, if not, y’know, Freddie Mercury’s voice. (Malek did not, as you perhaps recall, sing the damn songs himself.) And the jukebox-musical boom was on.

“It’s very exciting to be part of my own cinematic universe,” Fletcher joked in an April Vanity Fair piece headlined “Queen, Elton, Bruce: Is Classic Rock the Next Great Hollywood I.P. Well?” Gross, and yet, there are way lousier multiverses. Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, the stirring tale of a sullen British Pakistani teenager in 1970s England who worships Bruce Springsteen, ruled Sundance 2019 and comes out in August; Yesterday, the perhaps excessively magical-realist tale of a struggling British songwriter who suddenly finds himself the only person alive who remembers the Beatles, is out in June. The possibilities are endless. The Rush biopic! The Steely Dan biopic! The Grand Funk Railroad biopic! A David Bowie project called Stardust is forthcoming, obviously.

But first, a spirited excursion into the lurid, maudlin life and times of one Elton John, who does not have one song as cinematically triumphant as “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “We Are the Champions,” but then again, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t have one scene as thrilling as Rocketman’s depiction of “Crocodile Rock.”

This clip cuts off, alas, before Sir Elton levitates and everyone in the crowd joins him, an abrupt burst of zero-gravity euphoria that is both objectively corny and genuinely thrilling. And it really happened, sorta, during the young star’s live American debut, at the Troubadour in West Hollywood in 1970.

Rocketman is committed to these details, to the outlandish costumes (all those wacky glasses alone!), to the decidedly R-rated hedonism (lotta cocaine), to the weepy melodrama that defined John’s childhood. “When are you going to hug me?” the young, short-pants’d boy born Reginald Dwight demands of his taciturn father, repeatedly. He never does get that hug, at least not from his dad; cut to Egerton, wearing a garish devil costume at a drab group meeting at which he’s declared himself “an alcoholic, and a cocaine addict, and a sex addict,” tears streaming down his face from behind his diamond-crusted, heart-shaped, rose-tinted glasses.

What is less conventional about this, theoretically, is the letter R. “Some studios wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so the film would get a PG-13 rating,” John himself wrote in a Guardian essay on Rocketman’s wobbly path to the screen. “But I just haven’t led a PG-13-rated life.” Bohemian Rhapsody, whose path to the screen was far wobblier, infuriated Queen fans with its emphatically PG-13 approach, tiptoeing around the fundamental fact of Mercury’s homosexuality and staging just enough boilerplate rock-star hedonism to unconvincingly argue that Mercury was totally miserable during all that rock-star hedonism. It was a relentlessly unfun tribute to one of the funnest dudes who ever lived.

It is not exactly fun, perhaps, to watch Egerton gobble pills and swig from bottles and snort various powders with Herculean vigor. “For my next trick, I’m gonna fucking kill myself,” he announces, as he topples off a diving board. (Cue another magical-realist sequence at the bottom of the pool, set to “Rocketman” itself.) Hedonism in rock-god biopics is generally supposed to make you queasy—when the vibe is too triumphant, as in Netflix’s recent bonkers Mötley Crüe love letter The Dirt, you wind up with much bigger problems. But Rocketman is at least a little less visibly embarrassed by the excess that made its star attraction worthy of a movie like this in the first place. John is allowed to enjoy himself for a little while, at least.

One advantage Bohemian Rhapsody did have is a logical high point (Queen’s epochal 1985 performance at Live Aid) and a logical tragic endpoint (Mercury’s death, from AIDS-related pneumonia, in 1991), even if the film maddeningly scrambled the band’s timeline to get there. Elton John, to be sure, has plenty of righteous jams, some obvious (Egerton in a bathrobe at his mother’s piano, fumbling his way to the majesty of “Your Song”), some less obvious and thus pleasantly surprising. (Shout-out “The Bitch Is Back.”)

But Rocketman’s arc is shakier. Young Reginald becomes young Elton, who gets a little weepy-biopic advice (“You gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be”) and knocks ’em dead at the Troubadour. (“All right, enough of this bullshit—who wants to go to a party at Mama Cass’s,” the jubilant promoter announces afterward.) This triggers a series of whirlwind montages: the newspaper headlines, the newly lavish lifestyle, the downward-spiral dream sequences. Egerton’s singing voice is just fine, so long as the hit tune in question isn’t slowed down to an overwrought crawl. (Bizarrely, he sounded better singing “I’m Still Standing” as a cartoon gorilla.) He’s at his least convincing, actually, when he’s screaming at people in a coke-induced haze. But you can at least appreciate that every sound coming out of his mouth is actually his.

This Elton John does not, on camera, fuck everything that moves. But the fundamental fact of his homosexuality is handled with an effectively casual sort of respect, even if his sole onscreen love affair—save for his 1984 marriage to a German woman named Renate Blauel, which lasted four years in real life and gets maybe four minutes of screentime—is with John Reid (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden), his lover turned manager turned arch-enemy.

The Evil Manager and/or Lover is another rock biopic cliché, of course—Bohemian Rhapsody had one of those. (In real life, Reid also managed Queen.) But Rocketman’s true innovation is the awkward and ironclad and awfully sweet relationship between John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell as a beatific cowboy who shuns the spotlight and threatens to steal the movie. The dialogue in this movie has an Instagram-caption cheesiness to it. Reid: “You can do anything you want, you can be anyone you want, and it’s gonna be a wild ride.” Elton’s mom: “You’ll never be loved properly.” But Egerton and Bell’s first diner sit-down as Elton and Bernie, the two unfamous boys crooning the country tune “The Streets of Laredo” to each other in between fumbling pauses, has a lovely anti-rhythm to it. It’s a very human exchange in a genre fueled by stylized rock-star bombast that can’t help but excise humanity entirely. Bernie’s discovery that Elton is gay is nicely underplayed:

Bernie: “Are you?”

Elton: “Dunno.”

Perfect. Rocketman is a better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody, even if it concludes, abruptly, with a loving recreation of a cultural artifact slightly less beloved than Queen at Live Aid. (That’d be John’s beachy and dorky 1984 video for “I’m Still Standing.”) It will almost certainly not do Bohemian Rhapsody numbers; no offense to Sir Elton, but on the “two hours in the dark listening to a classic-rocker’s back catalog” scale, Queen wins. Egerton’s probably not quite Oscar material, either. But he’d frankly deserve it more than Malek did.

What still makes the Elton John songbook [grimaces] valuable intellectual property in 2019, meanwhile, is the prospect, however unlikely, that millions of post-millennials with no memory of Elton as a real-time superstar will rush to Spotify to plow through all those old tunes anyway. This is the true goal of this new rock-biopic multiverse: Both Yesterday and Blinded by the Light explicitly invite us to imagine a world where we can listen to (and monetize!) the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen all over again. Your average teenager has plenty of exposure to hedonism-as-tragedy, to the handsome money men in suits emerging as the true villains, to stadium-filling superstar grandeur reduced, triumphantly, to weepy group-therapy hugfests. That’s old news to them. What might surprise them, though, is “The Bitch Is Back.”