Between Freddie Mercury and Elton John, why only one gay British pop icon made box office history

There is a giant advertisement in Times Square for the film “Rocketman” that’s more than 15 stories tall. Looking down on Seventh Avenue, it dwarfs most other billboards in the neighborhood, mightily expressing that this movie, like its big honkin’ ad, is gonna be huge.

It isn’t.

That’s shocking, because a few months ago the Elton John biopic was poised to be among the top flicks of the summer, boasting a catalog of hits such as “Tiny Dancer,” “Bennie and the Jets” and “Your Song.” Paired with a scandalous plot about the British singer’s sex and drug addictions, the drama seemed unbeatable.

Hopes were hoisted even higher by the fact that a similar film, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” has surpassed pundits’ expectations, hauling in $903 million worldwide, along with a Best Picture Oscar nomination and Best Actor win for Rami Malek. All that after many critics, including me, hated it. Replicating the boffo success of a critical flop with great songs should’ve been a cinch.

But two months after its release, “Rocketman” is proving less of a rocket and more of a hot-air balloon. So far, it’s managed just $182.6 million worldwide, compared with the $600 million “Bohemian Rhapsody” had made at the same point during its theatrical run.

Sure, with a $40 million budget, “Rocketman” has made its studio, Paramount, some money. But “Bohemian Rhapsody” is printing it.

Why was the Freddie Mercury movie a shooting star, leaping through the sky, while “Rocketman” failed to take off with the same blaze of glory? Some owe it to the latter’s R rating, but that’s nonsense. Find me an Elton John fan under 17 — heck, under 30!

Others say the cause was the films’ diverging priorities: “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about the tunes, while “Rocketman” was about the dude. But mainstream audiences’ thinking isn’t that nuanced; they know they’re buying tickets to life stories set to music.

And therein lies the reason for the disparity: the life stories of the two men.

While the late Mercury remains to this day an obsessed-over enigma, like Princess Grace or Marilyn Monroe, John has long been an oversharer. What can a movie tell us about his life that he hasn’t already told Oprah? We know how he voted on Brexit, we are fully up to speed on the lifestyle he enjoys with husband David Furnish and their two kids. John is an active participant in modern, full-disclosure celebrity — a k a boring.

Mercury, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991, was so flamboyant and yet so elusive; beloved by millions yet known by few. Audiences went into “Bohemian Rhapsody” wanting to get to know him a little better. In particular, we wished to learn more about the secret he kept his entire life: that he was gay. And who knew he had a common-law wife? While the film did some shoddy guessing on his homosexuality, the singer’s spirit embodied by Malek ultimately made viewers feel closer to their idol.

Taron Egerton is equally good, if not better, as John in “Rocketman,” but you couldn’t call his performance revelatory. When he utters his first line of dialogue — “My name is Elton Hercules John, and I’m an alcoholic and a cocaine addict and a sex addict and a bulimic” — none of those vices come as a shock.

Then there’s the simple fact that Mercury didn’t live long enough to sully his musical legacy with subpar tunes. Queen wrote no new songs after his death, and Mercury was involved all the way through their final album, 1995’s “Made in Heaven.”

Today, their classics are made even more popular by their ubiquity in TV ads. In recent years, their songs have appeared in commercials for Dodge, Toyota and Amazon, among many others, and 2018 was a record year for the number of brands that used Queen songs. Brian Monaco, president/global chief marketing officer of Sony/ATV, chalks it up to Queen’s international appeal. “Brands get attached to it, and they don’t want to give it up,” he told Variety. “You’ve seen it in every aspect of the world, from Israel to Russia to Latin America to Italy. The catalog has been completely global.”

John, on the other hand, has dropped five albums in the aughts alone, and I bet you can’t name a single song on one of them. Even his 1979 album “Victim of Love” was panned by his co-writer Bernie Taupin, who told Rolling Stone it was “one of the most anemic records we made.”

So while Mercury will live on forever as a musical genius — he wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for Pete’s sake! — John has turned into an aging hack. Freddie’s the champion, and there’s nothing Hollywood could’ve done to change that.

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