'Rocketman' and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Have Little in Common, Except for a Sex Scene That Ties Queer Desire to Self-Destruction
Did you see Rocketman yet? Kristy loved it, and I will admit to singing along to Tiny Dancer because Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies and I will not apologize. And compared with last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman is a very different film (less shameful toward its protagonist, more jukebox in style, and umf jeez Richard Madden) despite basically sharing a director: Dexter Fletcher.
Fletcher stepped in to complete Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer bailed (insider gossip is that the film won Best Film Editing at the 91st Academy Awards basically because of Fletcher’s increased role alongside editor John Ottman), and he was attached to Rocketman since April 2018, when Taron Egerton also signed on to star as Elton John. And although the films differ greatly in how they treat their main subjects—Bohemian Rhapsody treating Freddie Mercury with an undercurrent of gay panic; Rocketman providing Elton John, who helped guide the project, with nuance and depth—Fletcher’s flair for the dramatic is evident in both.
What else is shared between the two biopics, though, is something I was a little surprised by: a scene set in a gay club that suggests that queer desire is linked to instability, self-destruction, and creative failure.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, this scene comes when Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) is already trapped in an abusive relationship with manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), and the two of them are doing increasingly more drugs, partying more often, and inviting more men into their bedroom. As “Another One Bites the Dust” plays, Freddie wanders through a club suffused in red, fuchsia, and magenta light, with men gyrating and dancing in a variety of leather outfits. The scene is meant to be simultaneously sexy and dangerous—(“Are you happy? Are you satisfied?/How long can you stand the heat?”), but it’s a precursor to Freddie’s unraveling in Germany, when he will realize that Paul is cheating on him, that he’s ill, and that he should reconnect with the rest of the band.
(There are only a few brief clips of this scene in the Bohemian Rhapsody trailer, which I’ve taken screengrabs of here: The DJ in the club, and Paul walking through the doors, held by leather-clad men.)
The gay club scene is meant to be an indicator that Freddie is spiraling out of control, becoming too hedonistic in his pursuit of sexual pleasure, almost like the movie is telling us, “Remember that one time Freddie looked at a man entering a bathroom at a truck stop, and that counted as a sex scene? Well, get a load of this leather BDSM shit! We’re going to keep it PG-13 but you better be titillated!” And it’s a little surprising that Rocketman, which does so much differently from Bohemian Rhapsody, uses the “gay clubs were self-indulgent, to the point of perverse excess” reasoning too.
In Rocketman, Elton’s gayness isn’t a secret: We’ve already see him in a sexual relationship, and then in an abusive partnership, with manager John Reid (Madden; in another shared moment, the character is played in Bohemian Rhapsody by Madden’s Game of Thrones co-star Aidan Gillen), and we see him come out to his mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard). She is unsurprised by his admission but still casually cruel in her reaction, telling him that his sexual “choice” will doom him to loneliness. “You’re choosing a life of being alone forever,” Sheila tells him, and then we see John punch Elton in the face, and so her homophobia and Elton’s fear of being truly himself become linked.
Fast-forward through “Pinball Wizard” and “Rocketman” and it’s time for “Bennie and the Jets,” which is staged in a disco-themed club, with Elton in a piano key-themed fur jacket and sparkly sequined pants, and then shirtless when the jacket and tank top underneath come off. The scene prioritizes Elton’s sexuality in a way that Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t for Mercury—Elton crowd-surfs over a sea of pulsating bodies, kisses more than one man, and it’s implied gets down in that orgy—and to be fair, that moment certainly puts him in more control than Freddie’s Paul-led wanderings through the club in the other film.
Here Elton is a willing participant, one who enters the club on his own terms and is heralded when he arrives, and the moves he makes inside are intentional. “We fight our parents out in the streets/To find out who’s right and who’s wrong,” the lyrics to “Bennie and the Jets” go, and this song choice in particular, for this scene, feels like a direct response to what Sheila said before about Elton and whether he’ll ever be loved.
But after the “Bennie and the Jets” gay club sex scene, much like Bohemian Rhapsody did, Rocketman slips into a negative area of Elton’s life. The club scene, similarly to Bohemian Rhapsody’s, is presented as a narcissistic turning point. Elton’s disco-inspired music seems awful and uninspired; his marriage to a woman fails; and he fights again with Sheila (“Mom, I have fucked everything that moves” and “Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother?”). We all know that Elton ultimately gets a happy ending—sober for 28 years, happy marriage to his husband David, and two children—but that club scene is the film’s penultimate downturn, and it’s a little surprising that Rocketman so closely follows the same narrative structure as Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie in which it otherwise has little in common. How both films use the gay club sex scene as a sort of reckoning, harmful moment for their main characters is an unexpected overlap, in particular for Rocketman, which otherwise does so well portraying queer desire.
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube/Rocketman, YouTube/Bohemian Rhapsody
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