Queer people often feel left out of our own stories. For generations, straight actors, writers and directors were the ones to tell queer stories on screen, which meant that LGBTQ characters were either drawn stereotypically — or that their story lines were so subtle that viewers might not even notice them. Gay love could be present as long as it didn’t alienate straight viewers.
For example, Rami Malek won an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but the film handles Mercury’s bisexual identity as a blip in his life, rather than a central component of his story. The 2017 gay love story “Call Me By Your Name” does a masterful job of depicting the chemistry and attraction between its main characters, but sex is only implied, not explicitly seen on screen. And then there is the ever frustrating trope of having to guess the sexuality of queer characters on screen, such as Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann in the 2016 “Ghostbusters” remake. McKinnon’s character was supposedly pansexual, although there would be no way to know that while watching the film.
Finally, we have “Rocketman,” which doesn’t shy away from exploring the highs and lows of a gay icon’s life. The way that the film handles Elton John’s sexuality is a step in the right direction. While it is being hailed as the first major studio film to include a gay sex scene — and that’s a big deal — it is also noteworthy for how ordinary it is. It is not the climax of the film; it just happens, and then it is over. Nor is it the only avenue through which John explores his sexuality. We see him grapple with platonic and romantic love, come out, and explore how he wants to present himself to the world. Queerness is not one-dimensional, and this film honors that.
It is refreshing to see a film in which the actors and director do not seem embarrassed to be showing the life of a queer person. While actor Rami Malek found it difficult to embrace Mercury’s status as a gay icon, Taron Egerton, who plays John, told Out magazine that he was “very proud” of how the film portrayed John’s sexuality. “The way we approached [the scene where John loses his virginity] was that we were going to try and treat the significant male relationship in the movie with tenderness and consideration, and try and portray it as something that it is, which is a beautiful moment of male intimacy.”
While most queer people will not become multiplatinum, Grammy-winning rock stars who go on to be knighted by the queen (although we can dream!), most will fall in and out of love, and experience intimacy and heartache. They probably will experience these things several times over. Audiences have watched straight couples go through these cycles for decades, depictions that have shaped viewers’ ideas and understanding of romantic relationships. However, these stories provide only a fraction of the possibilities.
Many moments in the film are touchstones of the queer experience, and the film is better for their inclusion. John’s sexuality is woven throughout “Rocketman,” not just relegating it to one moment. There is a touching scene in which he comes out to and comes on to the man who will become his lifelong collaborator, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). There are more difficult scenes, including when John comes out to his mother, who tells him that he will never be loved properly. He struggles through an abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden). By the end of the film, John proudly embraces his flamboyance.
“Rocketman” may be indicative of a larger change within the film industry. GLAAD recently released its 2019 Studio Responsibility Index, which tracks LGBTQ representation in movies released by the seven major film studios each year, and noted some significant improvements. In 2018, 18 percent of films released included LGBTQ characters; 11 of those included lesbian characters (significantly more than the previous year). However, no transgender or non-binary characters were represented in major studio films in 2018, and only 42 percent of LGBTQ characters were queer people of color (down from 57 percent the previous year).
“Rocketman” is not a perfect representation of the queer experience, but it is certainly a step forward. Much of this could be because of John’s participation in the production of the film, and his insistence that it be an accurate portrayal of his life. Credit must also be given to the queer community at large, which has been relentless in insisting that their stories be represented accurately and authentically, rather than straight-washed.
Considering that international showings of the film have already begun censoring the sex scene, more work needs to be done. Art is meant to convey components of the human experience so that we may better understand lives other than our own. The hope is not that these stories will assimilate to a dominant culture, but that they will help us appreciate and celebrate that difference. A major studio film that gives us an authentic glimpse of the life of a gay rock star is progress — but queer superheroes, queer romantic comedies, queer thrillers and queer characters that are part of other movies who have more to do than be the token queer must be next. And soon.