Movies & TV

Why Rocketman Refused to Shy Away From the Sex and Drugs of Elton John's Life

While it's not the first time gay sex has been depicted on screen, it still feels monumental.
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For those who have already had the pleasure of seeing Rocketman, it's fair to say that there's a lot going on over the course of two hours. There are dance numbers, Bryce Dallas Howard, floating audiences, a literal rocket man, a much older Bryce Dallas Howard who aged suddenly, and then, of course, gay sex. If a musical about the life of Elton John were created without any of these parts, it wouldn't have been a proper musical about the man's life.

But it's that last part—the gay sex—that is important to discuss. The majority of sex scenes between two men in Hollywood tend to lean in one of two directions: a metaphorical eyebrow raise that alludes to the idea that sex... happened, or an uneducated charade of what gay sex might be. Even in the groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain, the only sex scene shared between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) was fleeting with a quick fingertip of spit and eight to 10 hard thrusts.

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Even when a film "gets it right" like recent Academy Award-winning Call Me By Your Name, it's usually done through a heterosexual gaze. The intimacy of the scene feels sincere, but anyone who has read the book knows that some of the story's more suggestive scenes get the axe. Even the controversial peach scene (in the book, Oliver takes a bite from Elio's semen-filled peach) got a PG-13 edit. There's always a caveat to be had. Gay sex isn't something that Hollywood typically depicts, instead the industry relegates it to innuendos and close ups of men wincing in pain.

Bohemian Rhapsody is the perfect example. To tell the story of Freddie Mercury, one of the predominant queer icons of the 21st century, while barely attempting to highlight his queerness is less of a misstep and more of a flagrant dismissal of his intimate life. The closest the film gets is a cheeky exchange where Mercury (Rami Malek) follows a truck driver (Adam Lambert) into a dirty bathroom. That's not any kind of representation; it's a coy nod to doing something dirty in a dirty place.

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But the Elton John musical takes a moment to reimagine how gay sex could be depicted. Set to "Take Me to the Pilot," the (albeit) brief sex scene between Taron Egerton and Richard Madden feels sensual and fun—as sex of any kind should be. When the pants start coming off and we realize that someone is actually about to have sex, the camera doesn't turn away. That is likely thanks to Elton John, who ensured that the film showed the R-rated parts of his life. The rocker wrote, "I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life."

Equally remarkable, it's shot in a way that captures the physicality of the moment. Even in indie films that have been bold enough to feature sex scenes between men, the intercourse doesn't particularly look real. One man is somehow inserting himself into another man's invisible vagina, and the mechanics of it all don't make sense. It often comes across like a straight man directing two straight men in a gay sex scene.

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And yet, Rocketman managed to depict a realistic-enough sex scene without turning the act of intercourse or the gayness behind it into a villain. There's more to same-sex intercourse than a wink and a nod to the camera indicating that someone is about to get laid. There's a sensuality that gets lost in the politics of it all, yet the unwieldy Rocketman manages to cultivate its most sensible moment out of something so few other studios will touch.

The time that Egerton and Madden spend in the throes of sex are short, but the impact can't be understated. It may not be the first time a film studio has featured a gay sex scene, but it does feel like the first time a major motion picture studio took the time to make it look like the kind of sex you'd actually want to have. Then again, what do you expect from a film about the life of Elton John? That alone makes Rocketman a worthy addition to the canon of LGBT films.

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Now let's talk about Bryce Dallas Howard's makeup.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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