Why ‘Rocketman’ Will Be Lucky to Make Half of What ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Did
The unexpected achievements of Bohemian Rhapsody are a matter of record: It's the most successful music biopic ever at the box office, having taken nearly $1 billion worldwide; it won four Oscars, including Rami Malek’s Best Actor statue for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury; and it created an explosion of anticipation for similar movies like Motley Crue’s The Dirt.
Next on the release list is Rocketman, the story of Elton John, which arrives on May 31. Inevitably, it will be compared to Bohemian Rhapsody – both stories are about flamboyant gay British singers who found their fame in the ’70s. Both lead roles are played by rising-star actors: Malek as Mercury and Taron Egerton as John. Both productions even faced challenges with the lead actor’s teeth: Malek ended up appreciating the false set he used, while Egerton ended up not using his and painted in John’s famous gap instead.
Even with those similarities, many eyes will focus directly on the dollars and cents, and the minds behind those eyes will ask: “How much will Rocketman make?”
Egerton was recently asked the same question. “I'm at peace with however much money it makes," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "But I hope it does really, really well. If it made half of [Bohemian Rhapsody], it would be terrific for my career." Sadly for Egerton, there are several reasons why that’s unlikely. While both movies had a relatively similar budget (just more than $50 million for Bohemian Rhapsody, a little more than $40 million for Rocketman), they’re not starting from anything like the same position.
The biggest hurdle for the John story is its R rating, imposed as a result of several creative decisions including a gay sex scene. The most successful R-rated movie of all time is 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, which took $612 million at the box office globally – which is indeed more than half of the PG-13-rated Bohemian Rhapsody’s $903 million. Yet even in the era of superhero blockbusters, 2016’s Deadpool could manage only $783 million with its R rating, and its sequel made $785 million.
With the rating a clear barrier to the billions taken by films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avatar and Avengers: Endgame, it would be asking a lot for Rocketman to make $450 million worldwide. By way of a more even comparison, the biggest-grossing R-rated music biopic is 2014's Jersey Boys – Clint Eastwood's story of the Four Seasons – which made just $67 million from the same $40 million budget as Rocketman.
Another consideration is the fact that Bohemian Rhapsody did most of its business – $867 million – outside the U.S. due to the scale of personal following attached to Mercury during his life and afterward. While John is doubtless a world-class star, it’s difficult to gauge whether he has the kind of rabid fan base Mercury retains.
On a similar subject, there’s the fact that Mercury has been dead since 1991. The death of a popular icon often elevates them to a form of sainthood, meaning that a biopic can become something of a hagiography. With John still among the living, never having stopped making music and currently touring the world on his farewell road trip, it could be argued that his true value hasn’t yet been realized among the general public – and it’s the general public, not die-hard fans, who will push movie ticket sales up.
Watch the 'Rocketman' Trailer
While Brian May and Roger Taylor have kept Queen in the limelight, they’ve also managed the band business well. For example, their catalog has been financially successful for many years – their material is among the most frequently used in advertising campaigns – and they’ve also spent the past decade building a wider audience with the help of singer Adam Lambert. It’s been some time since John has secured mainstream attention the way Queen + Adam Lambert have done in recent years.
Next, there are question-marks over the nature of Rocketman itself. It was directed by Dexter Fletcher, who’s credited with saving Bohemian Rhapsody when he stepped in to complete the job after Bryan Singer was fired. However, the two films are very different. Fundamentally, Rocketman is a musical, with John’s songs used as part of the storytelling process and not just depictions of his talents, as was the case with Bohemian Rhapsody. Egerton sings all the songs – “Musicals are all about expressing yourself through song. … If you don’t sing them yourself, then you aren’t really expressing anything,” he said – and those songs become mini-plots in their own rite. When the audience sees “Crocodile Rock” in the movie, they’ll see it performed two years before it was written, and they’ll also see Egerton as John floating above his piano.
“What I care about is capturing the moment cinematically and musically,” Fletcher said, explaining that the story is presented from the viewpoint of John in the ‘90s. “He’s dealing with his demons and trying to see the light again through the darkness. That lends itself to imagination and these kind of emotional beats and gestures. And what I find interesting about that is that I can tell you a story of an event that I remember, but it’s going to be colored by my own perception of what was going on at that time.”
While it’s a creative concept that’s easy to understand, it moves Rocketman further from the strict definition of “biopic.” People who paid to see Bohemian Rhapsody did so on the understanding that they’d be given a relatively true account of Mercury’s life; that’s something that appeals to the general populace. But a musical with surreal scenes and fantasy asides -- as well as Fletcher’s explanation that “Elton is all about fantasy and imagination and magic” and that he “wanted to use his songs to elevate this to be more than just a biopic” -- could prove a more difficult sell.
Watch the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Trailer
Finally, it’s fair to suggest that the Bohemian Rhapsody team got lucky – they were able to pull off the best-imaginable result of releasing the right product at the right time. A potentially significant part of that luck was its release during a period in which the role of art critics was being questioned, as May pointed out. It’s arguable that, as review after review panned Bohemian Rhapsody, an increasingly irritated number of movie fans decided to see the film despite the critics’ words. Its four Oscar wins served to provide some people with a sense of having got back at those seemingly disconnected critics. However, like many such squabbles, a visible skirmish appears to have released some tension; so it remains to be seen how reviewers’ reactions will affect Rocketman’s success.
It seems as if the production team did consider such arguments – and probably others – but decided to make the movie they wanted to make, rather than a movie that would simply sell. Discussing the sex scene, Egerton explained: that "the rawness of that experience, the fear of that experience, but also the joy of the experience of Elton’s first kiss ... it’s electric, it’s exciting, your stomach is doing somersaults.” “We wanted to make a magical fantasy that tells the story of [John’s] life, or at least elements of his life,” Fletcher noted.
Producer Matthew Vaughn told how their commitment to their vision led to the collapse of a proposed deal with Universal during a phone call with studio boss Donna Langley. “I rang her up and she's like, 'You definitely want to make it an R-rated film and you're going to make it for over $35 million?' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'Good luck.’”
John himself said of watching the movie, “I didn't think it was Taron. I thought it was me. That's the highest compliment I can tell you."
With John and his husband David Furnish as executive producers, we do know that the subject of the movie approves of every moment. Even though Brian May has taken a protective approach to Mercury’s legacy, we can’t be certain that he would have approved of every moment in Bohemian Rhapsody. Whether that makes one or the other a better movie is the viewers’ choice. And they’ll make their feelings clear through ticket purchases.