‘Sex, Drugs And Rock N Roll’ — A Comparative Essay On ‘Rocketman’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Rocketman’ (2019) and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018) are remarkably similar films in many ways. Both focus around gay icons — Elton John and Freddie Mercury respectively — who were at their musical prime in the 1970s and 1980s and both play out with bombastic musical numbers.

But one similarity that I haven’t seen a lot of media outlets acknowledge is how both films documented the protagonists’ hedonistic lifestyles. At their most indulgent, John and Mercury were living out the ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock N Roll’ lifestyle.

The ultimate paths these two men ended up on could not be more different however –John eventually went to rehab in 1990 and remains sober to this day, whereas Mercury contracted HIV and sadly died in 1991 at the age of 45.

I thought it was interesting that both films, which in all other senses were complimentary in their portrayal of the artists, were brutally raw in their depictions of the depths of hedonism. Sir Elton, having the privilege to be alive to see his life-story brought to the big screen, insisted on the inclusion of such scenes — “I haven’t led a PG-13 rated life. I didn’t want a film packed with drugs and sex, but equally, everyone knows I had quite a bit of both during the 70s and 80s.” (1)

The films use dark lighting to illustrate the ‘fall from grace’, as they show the protagonists falling into a lifestyle of promiscuity and reckless drug taking. Watching it in the theatres, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d entered an alternative universe as the seedy underbelly of the 1970s music world was being unravelled before the eyes of the audience.

But for many, these scenes aren’t disconcerting. That’s what they live for — that’s a great weekend by some accounts. Some gay men live and breathe the ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock N Roll’ lifestyle, to an extent that their straight counterparts may find surprising.

According to statistics from the LGBT Foundation, 34% of gay and bisexual men binge drink once a week, compared to 19% of men in general. (2) Binge drinking is defined in the UK as more than 8 units of alcohol in a single session — roughly the equivalent of four pints of beer, lager or cider.

Drug use among LGBT people is seven times higher than the general population, with cannabis and poppers being particularly prevalent among those surveyed. And this is without even going into ‘Chem-Sex’.

Statistics on sexual promiscuity are just as jarring. Gay men are vastly over-represented in diagnoses of sexually transmitted diseases. They were 25% of new STD infections in London and made up 9 in 10 syphilis diagnoses and 7 in 10 gonorrhoea diagnoses. (3)

The reckless living generally associated with the bygone era of the 1970s is a reality for a great number of gay men. A 2014 survey by 56 Dean Street, a sexual health clinic in London, found that 65% of the men surveyed reported having four or more sex partners per bender, and 45% of them shared needles. (4)

It’s a reality many of us don’t feel comfortable talking about. There’s likely a fear that doing so far plays into the hands of the religious right, and justifies their claims that gays need ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’.

But not having a conversation can have devastating consequences.

My hope is that the stories of Freddie Mercury and Elton John can help open up the conversation, and the recent films will aid the conversation in getting off the ground.

The foundation for this soul-searching was laid with the publication of Matthew Todd’s fantastic book Straight Jacket. This book dives into the nitty-gritty of the burdens represented disproportionately amongst the gay community — risky sexual behaviour, eating disorders, drug use, alcoholism. Elton himself endorsed the book, claiming “This is an essential read for every gay person.”

I thoroughly agree.

Sir Elton certainly hasn’t been shy about discussing the excesses of his younger year. He acknowledges that he was very fortunate to avoid catching HIV, telling the International Aids Conference in 2012 that, “I should be dead — six foot under in a wooden box. I should have contracted HIV in the 1980s and died in the 1990s, just like Freddie Mercury…” (5)

It’s through his stint in rehab in 1990 that Sir Elton set himself on the path to recovery, establishing the Elton John AIDS Foundation along the way. Since 1992, the Foundation has raised over $400 million to support HIV related programs in fifty-five countries. This includes funding prevention, treatment, education and global health initiatives.

If ever there was a person who used his — for lack of a better word — privilege to better the world, it’s Sir Elton John. He survived the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s, when all too many gay men faced the grim prospect of a HIV diagnosis — and in those days, it truly was a death sentence.

Thankfully, most gay men who are diagnosed with HIV or any assortment of sexually transmitted diseases will have medication on hand to sustain their life. But that does not mean the potential dangers should be taken lightly.

For gay men — often written off as party animals — happiness is made to seem elusive, whether it be through familial rejection, bullying or various vices throughout the community. But Elton John’s road to recovery is proof that this does not have to be the case.

Much like how he described ‘Straight Jacket’ as a book every gay person should read, I will describe ‘Rocketman’ as a film that every gay person should watch.

1) https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/may/26/elton-john-in-my-own-words-exclusive-my-life-and-making-rocketman

2) https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/lgbt-media/Files/87413329-79fc-4390-853e-a27f3ef5cf5c/Part%2520of%2520the%2520Picture%25207.pdf

3) https://www.letsgetchecked.com/articles/highest-rate-of-stis-in-the-uk/

4) Matthew Todd, Straight Jacket (London: Bantam Press, 2016) p. 194.

5) https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/jul/24/elton-john-speech-aids-conference

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Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

22 year old writer and journalist from Manchester, UK.