A Tale of Two Biopics

Elton John’s biopic Rocketman is out (pun intended) and as expected, people are comparing it with Bohemian Rhapsody. But the difference in vantage points precludes direct comparison, instead highlighting the nuances of how the biographer affects the biography. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Let’s get one thing straight before we dive back into biopics: I don’t want to compare Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) as overall films. To do so would be to confine each by relating them too much to one another, when in fact I find they’re pretty different in tone. But that leads me to this article, in which I’ll analyze just one aspect of the films: voice. (Surprisingly not in the context of singing.) How does authorship of a biography, specifically in the biopic film genre, affect how a story is told? 

Take Bohemian Rhapsody, for starters. It was produced and released long after Freddie Mercury’s death but chronicles his rise to fame and his artistic legacy in what I feel is a tasteful tribute. It’s been criticized by fans for simplifying the LGBTQ2+ narrative and Freddie’s diagnosis with AIDS, as well as for some sequential inaccuracies – but as a casual Queen listener myself, I do favour a cohesive story flow over pinpoint accuracy. Some other stories always make me foam at the mouth in the name of authenticity (*ahemPrideandPrejudice*), but I can appreciate a solid, tightened-up story especially where distilling someone’s life into a consumable, 2-hour flick is concerned. BoRhap delivers on that front. 

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury of Queen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo: NME / Alamy

But it’s fascinating, with the recent release of Elton John biopic Rocketman, to behold the variance in tone thanks to its vantage point. This biopic doesn’t tell the story about Sir Elton John. Elton John tells you his story himself (also condensed but mostly accurate), since he’s still living and was personally involved in the project as an executive producer alongside his husband David Furnish. Knowing this, I felt while watching the movie that I could pick up the difference between the two films in terms of voice. Rocketman is bolder when it comes to the personal trials of its subject, tackling issues such as substance abuse, LGBTQ2+ experiences and homophobia, mental health, and the burdens of fame. 

Taron Egerton as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Bohemian Rhapsody definitely touched on a number of these topics too, but seemed to handle them much more cautiously in terms of Mercury’s experiences within them. I felt that there was a more reverent tone toward Mercury and a distance from the grittier parts of his story – understandably. Producing a legacy biopic means celebrating an artist’s achievements – and as Mercury is no longer present to have agency over his story, writers and producers took the utmost care, perhaps scaling down difficult topics a bit to avoid making any controversial statements. Getting inside Mercury’s head and obtaining an insider perspective of his emotions in each scene is no longer possible, so his life had to be interpreted more from the outside. It makes perfect sense, especially when loved ones and former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were film consultants, are watching the film – their approval matters, as does the feeling that the film does justice to Mercury’s life and experiences. 

On the other hand, Rocketman pulled out all the stops, no holds barred. John and Furnish didn’t quail when it came to plunging into the darker underbelly of John’s lowest moments – the result was an intensely honest human experience, as John and his deepest insecurities and struggles are laid bare for viewers. Again, it’s not surprising that Rocketman‘s perspective is more internally oriented – it’s John’s story to tell. He has direct ownership over his life and how he presents it to others, and he’s fearlessly made use of it. 

The real Freddie Mercury and Elton John hanging out. Photo: Pinterest

You could say, then, that Bohemian Rhapsody is more of a biography while Rocketman is an autobiography. The two modes of storytelling vary from one another, and the products of each come through in their respective films. BoRhap is a glossy, uplifting vignette of Freddie Mercury’s genius from the perspective of those who remember him fondly, and Rocketman is an extremely self-aware, moodier take on fame and collaboration, Elton John’s way of thanking (and alternately, condemning) those who were a part of his journey, depending on their roles in his life. 

Both films are intriguing, with common themes of artistic talent, loneliness, and love. Yet each has its own priorities for preserving the story of its subject. Although I said I resent too much direct comparison of these two films (they both offer their own merits), the inevitability of it within the genre has enabled me to really ponder creatorship and how it shapes narrative. Next time you’re watching a biopic, ask yourself who’s telling the story and how that affects its portrayal. I’d bet it’ll help you appreciate the subject’s life even more.

You Can’t Repeat the Past

Why, of course you can! Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) demonstrates that while it may seem unorthodox to decide against a by-the-book 1920s soundtrack, the choice to incorporate contemporary artists worked.

By Serena Ypelaar

When a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby got the green light (pun intended), I was over the moon. High School Me was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, despite never being assigned to read it (or perhaps that’s why I actually liked it: it wasn’t just schoolwork).

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Photo: The Gentleman’s Journal

Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire was to play narrator Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan was Daisy; matches made in heaven, basically. But one thing I just wasn’t sure about was the soundtrack. When I saw a couple of early trailers for the film, I was mildly indignant. Eager as I was, I was a purist and had expected authentic 1920s music to furnish the lavish Baz Luhrmann film. But that’s the understanding I lacked: I hadn’t seen Moulin Rouge or any of Luhrmann’s other films at that time, so his style was unknown to me. What do you mean, they’re using modern music in such a sacred film, one rooted so inextricably in the Jazz Age? I was positively affronted. How would that ever work?

But then came May, and I saw the movie. And it worked; by God, did it ever work. I don’t know how, but I finally understood the vision and appreciated the 1920s flair added to each track, as produced by Jay-Z. Joining him were Kanye West, Beyoncé and André 3000, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am, Fergie, Gotye, Sia, Florence + the Machine,
Emeli Sandé, Bryan Ferry, The xx, and Jack White. In other words, a gilded lineup if I ever saw (or heard) one.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) in New York. Photo: Pinterest

Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” is achingly wistful; The xx’s “Together” is languid and romantic. On the flip side, Fergie and will.i.am’s tracks brought the party to life, and Jay-Z, Kanye, and Beyoncé capture the enigmatic allure of both Gatsby and New York City. Jay-Z and Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” overlaid a city montage so memorably that I picture the scene whenever I hear the track.

The soundtrack is used (in conjunction with original novel quotes) to great effect at Gatsby’s party, seen here.

As seen through Nick’s eyes, Gatsby’s party is a perfect example of the soundtrack at play. In my reading of the novel, Fitzgerald knew exactly the right balance to strike between well-placed pithiness and sprawlingly eloquent description. The film soundtrack is the perfect complement: opulence, combined with Fitzgerald’s judicious prose, creates a picture of how the party might look and sound.

The Buchanans, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton). Photo: Pinterest

Surrendering my preconceived notions was easy once swept up by the film in its totality. I appreciate how the soundtrack was able to unseat my stubborn misgivings, and I think creatively, it was a phenomenal success. When I imagine the alternative, my originally preferred 1920s jazz, I can admit that the film might then have come across as static compared to this adaptation, which lies fluidly between Fitzgerald’s era and ours. It’s a bridge to audiences, who can relate to these familiar musicians in a setting that may be largely unfamiliar. In less capable hands, it could have been a disaster. But elements of each song nod to the novel, from Florence’s “green light” in “Over the Love” to Gatsby’s ultimate fate, tacitly referenced in will.i.am’s “Bang Bang”. Interspersed with Craig Armstrong’s alternately bubbly and haunting score, the soundtrack represents all the warring interests and desires of the film, looping backstory into the ominous plot progression.

Some people didn’t even like this film. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby is staunchly faithful to the source material as far as the screenplay goes. The characters spoke many lines verbatim from the book, which warmed my purist heart; the costumes were wonderfully executed. Any liberality had to be assigned elsewhere, and I’m actually glad it was the music. This soundtrack might not have thrived with a direct repeat of past music. Instead, it acknowledges history and moves forward with it to inform something new, which the misguided Gatsby failed to do as he tried to reconstruct the past.

Gatsby (DiCaprio) reaches for the green light across the bay, obsessed with getting back to Daisy as if nothing had changed. Photo: Odyssey

This soundtrack will always be relevant to me as a reminder that our fixation on what things should be isn’t always what’s best – there are so many new and daring possibilities out there.