It is hard not to compare “Rocketman,” which officially takes off in theaters on May 31 but will have a special early nationwide Fandango showing on May 18, to last year’s tune-filled phenom “Bohemian Rhapsody.” For one, it shares the same director, Dexter Fletcher. It also centers upon a flashy British rock star, Elton John, who broke out in the ’70s and would become a gay icon. But what sets it apart from that paean to the magic of Queen front man Freddie Mercury is that the production isn’t burdened by many of the pitfalls that its predecessor had to overcome.
By most measures, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a musical biopic about the life of Queen front man Freddie Mercury, was an astonishing success despite such drawbacks as having its original star Sacha Baron Cohen dropping out and scandal-enmeshed director Bryan Singer being replaced after taking long absences and clashing with the cast and crew.
Critics were initially mixed to negative when it opened last October while others nitpicked historical inaccuracies in the script. But audiences worldwide defied those thumb’s-down assessments and flocked to witness what would become Rami Malek‘s Oscar-winning performance in the title role as the chart-topping rock god who died too soon in 1991 at age 45 after battling AIDS.
As a result, the film became the biggest-grossing musical biopic, LGBT movie and drama film ever, with more than $900 million in global ticket sales. “Bohemian Rhapsody” earned five Academy Award nominations and won three besides Malek’s acting honor — sound editing, sound mixing and film editing.
So what positives does the so-called epic musical fantasy “Rocketman” possess, besides having Fletcher behind the camera from the start, that “Bohemian Rhapsody” lacked?
*Its leading man — Taron Egerton — can actually sing. Malek, for the most part, had his vocals mixed in with Marc Matel, an ace at re-creating Mercury’s amazing vocal range. But as the music video featuring the 1972 title tune above shows, Egerton, best known as Eggsy in the “Kingsman” movies, handily invokes John’s vocal stylings all by himself. In fact, Sir Elton insisted that Egerton actually croon his signature tunes like “Crocodile Rock” and “Your Song.”
*It has the blessing of its subject. “Bohemian Rhapsody” did not have the benefit of Mercury’s input and version of events. Instead, much of what is depicted in the film relied on fellow Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor‘s interpretations of what happened. However, John, who is one of the film’s producer, prefers not to reduce “Rocketman” to just another musical biopic bounded to reality. He has described it as “a surreal look at my life, and not just a factual look at my life. … I just don’t want it to be a normal biopic because my life hasn’t been like that,” says John, who has compared the film to “Moulin Rouge!”
*It features a higher-profile cast. Besides Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody” featured familiar supporting players such as Allen Leech, Tom Hollander and Mike Myers in a glorified cameo. “Rocketman,” however, is boosted by the noteworthy presence of Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot,” “Fantastic Four”) as John’s song-writing partner Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones, “Bodyguard”) as John’s early ’70s boyfriend and manager John Reid and Bryce Dallas Howard as Sheila Dwight, Elton’s mum.
*Addressing the one criticism that could arise early on. Some might protest that another heterosexual actor has been cast in an LBGT role, as was the case with Malek. But Ergon wisely already addressed the feathered-boa-wearing elephant in the room in an interview with Attitude, a British LGBTQ news outlet: “I would not have played this character if, one, I wasn’t allowed to show Elton being a nightmare because he has been. Two, if we weren’t able to explore his drink-and-drug addiction … and, three, if I didn’t think we could make a film that the gay community would watch and feel a sense of ownership over.”
*“Rocketman” will get major film fest cred. The movie will receive a high-profile showcase at Cannes on May 16. Meanwhile, for those who aren’t heading to the French Riviera, tickets for the early Fandango screening on May 18 are on sale now!