Multiple movie studios passed on the opportunity to make Rocketman, an R-rated musical fantasia about Elton John’s hedonistic breakthrough years.
Too gay. Too expensive. Too reliant on an unproven star.
But one film company, the down-on-its-luck Paramount Pictures, saw the audacious project as a chance to prove something to both Hollywood and Wall Street — namely that, to borrow a reference from Sir Elton, it’s still standing.
Now comes the moment of truth.
Rocketman will arrive in theatres May 30 as perhaps the most ambitious movie of Hollywood’s (US) summer season, a four-month period that typically accounts for 40 per cent of annual ticket sales and relies overwhelmingly on franchises.
Starring Taron Egerton and costing an estimated US$120 million ($173 million) to make and market worldwide, Rocketman trails glitter – a million Swarovski crystals adorn the costumes and eyewear – and depicts gay sex, a first for a major studio.
Egerton, 29, known for the Kingsman action comedies, did all of his own singing, reinterpreting classics like The Bitch is Back. There is intricate choreography (one stylized scene finds an entire London neighborhood dancing in formation) and an orgy musical number set to Bennie and the Jets.
Depending on its box office performance, Rocketman could have wide ripple effects. Paramount has delivered nine consecutive quarters of improved financial results for Viacom, its corporate owner, but a turnaround is still tenuous.
A big hit — and one that’s not a sequel, spinoff or reboot, at that — would provide a morale boost and send an important message to Hollywood’s creative community and Viacom investors: that even in the age of Netflix and Marvel, Paramount can deliver.
The stakes are also high for Egerton. His previous movie, Lionsgate’s big-budget Robin Hood, was a critical and commercial bomb. If this one fizzles, Edgerton’s leading man opportunities may vanish.
Dexter Fletcher, who directed Rocketman, is also hoping for a career-making moment. Fletcher, who also acts, has never had a breakout success as a filmmaker, although he earned points in Hollywood for finishing Bohemian Rhapsody after the credited director, Bryan Singer, was fired.
Turnout for Rocketman could either heat up or cool down studio interest. Right now, film executives are dreaming of finding another Bohemian Rhapsody. The Queen bio-musical collected a jaw-dropping US$908 ($1.3 billion) worldwide in 2018 and won four Academy Awards, including one for Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.
“It will be interesting to see how broad the Rocketman audience will be — whether it bridges the gaps,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, which tracks box office data.
Heterosexual men are typically the hardest audience for musicals to reach. Bohemian Rhapsody overcame that hurdle, but no one is exactly sure why.
Some longtime movie marketers point out that Queen anthems like We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions are sporting event mainstays. “Or it could be that these movies are hitting on multiple levels: biopic, jukebox musical, an anchor performance, a little documentary even,” Dergarabedian said.
There are signs that Paramount’s gamble on Rocketman will pay off. The movie had its world premiere Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival, where attendees openly boo if they don’t like what they see. Rocketman received a prolonged standing ovation and positive reviews.
“A full-blown song-and-dance spectacular, in which fantasy and reality often blur together — sometimes with seamless fluidity, and sometimes with quasi-Brechtian distance,” wrote Justin Chang, a critic for The Los Angeles Times.
Paramount certainly seemed pleased. Publicists for the studio, which has placed last at the domestic box office for the past seven years, even as it found occasional hits like A Quiet Place, sent out a news release that said in capital red letters, “We’ve been waiting a long, long time — Rocketman blasts off in Cannes!”
Still, success for Rocketman is far from guaranteed.
How much clamour is there for Elton John music? There might be a great deal: John has spent the past decade performing sold-out shows in Las Vegas and touring the world to similar results.
On the other hand, John has spent the past decade performing. Bohemian Rhapsody benefited from pent-up demand for Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991.
One of Paramount’s biggest challenges involves the perception of success. If Rocketman sells even half the number of tickets as Bohemian Rhapsody, it will be a runaway success.
But try telling that to box office headline writers.
There is no way for Paramount to avoid comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody, even though Rocketman is a sharper-edged film that has a more auteur sensibility. Fletcher’s film begins and ends with John in rehab, where he identifies himself as an alcoholic, with addictions to cocaine and sex.
Gay imagery was largely underplayed in Bohemian Rhapsody, to the dismay of people eager for Hollywood to become less timid about homosexuality.
But the depiction of same-sex relationships in Rocketman could limit interest in more conservative parts of the United States. The contemporary romantic comedy Love, Simon was a hard sell in 2018 because it ventured a kiss between teenage boys.
Rocketman is expected to generate enormous ticket sales in countries like England, but the film will not make it past Chinese censors without severe sanitisation, something John is likely to deem a nonstarter.