Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman and why movie fans need to stop creating false dichotomies

Dexter Fletcher has somehow become the maestro of the charming British musical. A couple of years after Sunshine on Leith enticed even the most ardent Proclaimers sceptics, two of the biggest song and dance spectaculars of the next 12 months will have his fingerprints all over them. He’s the man behind the Elton John biopic Rocketman, in which Taron Egerton plays the legendary pop icon, and he was parachuted in at the last minute to finish Bohemian Rhapsody – Bryan Singer’s take on the story of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. DGA rules mean that Fletcher won’t get a directing credit for the latter movie, which hits UK cinemas today, but without him, the project might not have ever got over the finishing line.

The Fletcher factor, along with their near-simultaneous releases, means that these two films will be indelibly linked in the minds of critics and audiences. But should they be compared?

They are certainly two very different projects. Based on the trailers and content that has been released to date, Bohemian Rhapsody seems to be a very conventional biopic of a musical star, using recordings of Mercury’s vocals to accompany Rami Malek’s impressive physical transformation into the legendary singer. It has the sort of glossy surface and showy performance that could translate into awards season success if the movie is of a high quality.

Rocketman Taron Egerton

Fletcher is taking a very different approach with Rocketman. Its teaser trailer declares that the film is “based on a true fantasy”, with a shot of Egerton levitating while playing the piano that recalls the delightfully fanciful observatory scene from La La Land. Far from the rather conventional world in which Bohemian Rhapsody appears to take place, this looks as if it may be a more unorthodox take on the musician biopic.

Comparisons between these two movies are destined to be thoroughly and sadly unhelpful. They are set to be different films attempting entirely different styles, connected only by their positions of homage for British music legends and the dude behind the camera. Both movies are likely to do very solid jobs within their own wheelhouse, and that’s fine.

Modern film discourse often becomes so tribal, in a way that makes it impossible to have meaningful discussions of these movies. We’re about to move into Oscar season, at which point factions form around the films that will be competing. There’s already a straight fight forming between the people who believe A Star is Born should win everything and the people who think that there are other movies in contention. Lady Gaga’s devotees are already inscribing her name on the Best Actress gong, while fans of Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary are vigorously lobbying for her inclusion in the race.

Bohemian Rhapsody Rami Malek

Awards season discussion is almost always reduced to binary factionalism. There’s no room for people who like A Star is Born and Hereditary equally, or people who wouldn’t begrudge Bradley Cooper’s musical its prize, but prefer Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong in First Man. Nuance is not something that has much of a place in movie discussion, despite the fact it should. Liking one film doesn’t mean you have to dislike all of the others.

In that situation, it seems clear that there’s going to be a lot of straight comparison at play between Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. The reality of it, though, is that it’s entirely possible to love both of these movies and, for many people, it will simply come down to what it is they’re looking for from their musical biopics. For crowd-pleasing musical numbers and straightforward sentiment, Bohemian Rhapsody looks the place to go. For fantasy and symbolism, Rocketman could be more up your street.

Bohemian Rhapsody is out in cinemas today.  

Pictures via 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures.