Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonhard Cohen, Anthem (Selected Poems, 1956 – 1968)

“Without friends no one would choose to live,”[1] Aristotle declares, while C.S. Lewis states:

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.[2]

Friendship is a key theme in the stories of each of three musical-oriented films which arrived in theaters from late 2018 to the summer of 2019: Bohemian Rhapsody(November 2018) a tribute to Queen and Freddy Mercury, Rocketman(May 2019) about Elton John, and Yesterday (June 2019) the story of a world made dystopic, as it were, by the absence of the Beatles and their music. [3] [4] [5]All three revolve about a main character whose life story consists of a quest for friendship, belonging, and love. For Freddie Mercury and Elton John, their music flows naturally from the relational struggles in their lives. Yesterday’s Jack Malik, the only musician (and just one of three people total) who remembers the music of the Beatles after earth gets a global reset, has a similar quest for belonging, true friendship, and love. The music of all three films expresses a yearning to escape dystopia and find a sense of belonging that proves elusive. Despite Tolstoy’s wisdom that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” the dystopias of the three films are remarkably similar.[6]  All show lead characters struggling for identity and belonging in a world of selfish relations, whether in the form of unloving parents and family (Rocketman), or friends and agents who act as selfish leeches (all three); in each film, it is ultimately true friendship and family that rescue each.

There is also a romantic and sexual component to all three stories, as Elton John and Freddie Mercury are well-known for their bisexuality, while Malik’s fictional story is one of friendship and finally romance with his childhood and lifelong friend Ellie McKinnon.[7] The stories of all three lead characters show both selfish and sacrificial friendships. Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody each seek to ultimately tell the story of romantic homosexual love, but both, in fact, show the need for (non-romantic) male friendship. In Yesterday, the sacrificial friendship of Ellie (Malik’s enthusiastic and supportive friend and manager) highlights the story as Malik comes to realize the insufficiency of relegating her to the (merely) “friend column.” Quite unlike Mercury and John, Ellie refuses to allow herself (and Jack) to settle for shallow and carnal pleasures (a one-night stand), whereas John and Mercury both (admittedly, by the characters themselves) become lost for prolonged periods in selfish and debauched lifestyles.

Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman: Dystopia, Belonging and Identity

Freddie Mercury explains of the essence of Queen eloquently with:

We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, we’re playing for the other misfits They’re the outcasts, right at the back of the room. We’re pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.[8]

The dystopia of not belonging faces all the leads as we watch them struggle to find their place both outside and eventually within the music world. Mercury, often derogatorily called a “Paki” (from Pakistan, although as his father explains, “We are Parsi Indian who left Persia a thousand years ago to avoid persecution”), finds his niche as a vocalist almost directly due to his unsightly appearance; his enlarged mouth with four extra incisor teeth gave Mercury extra volume and hence range of voice. Mercury and Queen pioneer a style at times (usually) outrageous but tailored to their followers, the “misfits.” After entertaining massive audiences on a tour of South America in 1981 and hearing Mercury’s love song (Love of My Life) to his fiancée, Mary Austin, sung back by the crowd, Queen developed the crowd-participating chant rhythm (two stomps then a clap) for their hit song We Will Rock You.[9] Queen’s music thus explicitly appeals to the outsider, and to those who don’t belong in a dystopic world of misfits.

For Mercury and Queen, “belonging” began at home: “we’re a family, but no two of us the same” they explain to their would-be agent John Reid.[10] Mercury’s leaving the band to go solo (similar to Elton John’s sabbatical from his song writer, Bernie Taupin) ultimately ends in artistic disaster, as Mercury blamed the fact that “I hired a bunch of guys and told them exactly what I wanted them to do, and the problem was, they did it. No push back from Roger [Taylor, drummer], none of your [Brian May, guitarist] rewrites, none of his [bass John Deacon] funny looks.”[11] Instead, they return to the bickering but functional family of the band: “I need you; and you need me” as Mercury puts it.[12] Mary persuades him that she (though at that point, no longer engaged to him) and his friends, the band, are his family and where he belongs, and not among those he describes as fruit flies that have come to feast on what is left of his rotting, isolated self.[13] Freddie thus rids himself of Paul, his leeching, opportunistic band manager and lover, and asks forgiveness from the band. The final performance shown, a duplication of their Live Aid Concert (1985) performance for a satellite viewing audience of one and a half billion (for which Queen’s and Mercury’s performance in particular are widely acknowledged to have stolen the show), includes the melancholic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the youthful “Radio GaGa,” and finally “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions,” both of which are quintessential exhibits of Queen’s giving a voice to “the misfits.” Such songs clearly parallel statements of worth and significance as that of Walt Whitman, which found its way into the 1989 film Dead Poets Society:

I too am not a bit tamed – I too am untranslatable;

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”[14]

Mercury says the same, though perhaps more flamboyantly, singing

I’m a shooting star, leaping through the sky …

I’m burning through the sky

That’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit

I’m travelling at the speed of light,[15]

as well as “Who Wants to Live Forever?”[16]  Mercury also strikes a poetic note of courage and self when he defiantly states he will perform at Live Aid despite his struggle with AIDS, telling the band “[don’t] bore me with your sympathy … I’m going to be what I was born to be, a performer.”[17]

In a sense, Mercury’s battle with death echoes the claim of J.R.R. Tolkien who held that good stories (fairy tale and legend in particular) necessarily deal with pain, sorrow, and loss. But the most gripping stories, Tolkien observed, are those that deal with ultimate loss and sorrow, and the “oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.”[18] Mercury can also find a kindred spirit with C.S. Lewis, who countered the cold, scientific view of life that he adopted for a while with his own persistent, yearning desire, abandoning an artless world for one of beauty and love: “the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since the old days.”[19] Lewis’s conversion from an impersonal naturalism to the poetic perspective led him to re-read Romantics like Shelley and Goethe, from whom Lewis learned “to relish energy, fertility, and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence, of things that grow.”[20]  Lewis continued with:

I became capable of appreciating artists who would, I believe, have meant nothing to me before; all the resonant, dogmatic, flaming, unanswerable people like Beethoven, Titian (in his mythological pictures), Goethe … and the more exultant Psalms.[21]

Lewis was so repulsed at the prospect of an utter lack of meaning and significance that he declared:

The more seriously we take our own charge of futility the more we are committed to the implication that reality in the last resort is not futile at all. The defiance of a good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative … I cannot and never could persuade myself that such defiance is displeasing to the supreme mind.[22]

Indeed, Lewis joined Mercury in defiantly begging the question, “Who wants to live forever?”

Elton John’s story parallels that of Freddie Mercury, though the distance from his own father and family are much more pronounced. The young Reginald Dwight (his original name) is shown as a musical prodigy, replaying complex songs by ear and possessing a distinctive singing voice, gaining admittance to the Royal Academy of Music, and eventually pairing his musical talents with those of lyricist Bernie Taupin. But Reggie’s home life is a bitter disappointment, with his mother cold and unaffectionate, and a father (when not away with the military) who ignores his son. John’s father Stanley finally leaves the family due to his wife’s affair, and, when as a famous performer, John later visits his father with his new family (including two young sons), he is crushed to find his father playful and affectionate with his young step-brothers.

Rocketman shows a youthful John playing with his band in local taverns, but slowly morphing into the performer persona for which he is known. His increasingly outrageous fashion sense (his trademark eyeglass tradition was begun in imitation of Buddy Holly) highlights the journey, as he progresses from 1970s styles to performances as Donald the Duck, a spectacularly colored chicken, and Queen Elizabeth among other outfits. Later in the film, John admits that “maybe I could have tried to be more normal.”[23] Otherwise, John’s pop roots show in Crocodile Rock (his first #1 hit in the US) and the fighting-spirited Saturday Night’s Alright.

Both Mercury’s and John’s bisexuality unfold in selfish and abusive relationships, while otherwise highlighting their descent into lonely and debauched lifestyles (as they both admit in the films). Mercury’s alternate sexuality unfolds as his band manager Paul lures him into questioning his sexuality, followed by declaring his bisexuality to his fiancée Mary and his rapid descent into the night life of gay clubs and liaisons. Paul encourages him to leave Queen for his own solo recording deal though he keeps Mary close by buying her a home next door to his own mansion. Mercury eventually settles in a permanent and less selfish (and homosexual) relationship until he dies of AIDS in 1991 at age 46. Mercury’s family remains supportive but hurt by his life choices throughout, though his performing at Live Aid at the end, “for the starving children of Africa, no artists are taking any money for it” lives up to his father’s advice of “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”[24]

Like Mercury, John is seduced into his homosexuality by others who seek to convince John that he is gay. John finally engages in a homosexual relationship with John Reid, who becomes John’s (self-serving) business manager; ironically, it was Reid’s assistant Paul who played the role of self-serving business manager and homosexual lover to Mercury. Reid encounters John after John’s breakthrough gig at the famous Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles. A nervous John hesitatingly lets his friend Bernie leave his side for female company, at which point Reid moves in and begins a personal affair (and business relationship) with John; John later restates how he felt his friend and songwriter Taupin left his side when he most needed him. John’s fame and fortune lead him to a debauched lifestyle (similar to that of Mercury), as he turns to sex, substance abuse and even shopping to fill his gaping, inner loneliness.

The parallels between Mercury and John are striking.  Like Mercury with his band, John finds family and belonging most strongly with his friend and lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Though the film claims that John and Taupin never fought throughout their fifty year relationship, the most poignant scene between the two comes when Taupin and John break from each other (for a season it turns out), and Taupin angrily sings from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to John:

I should have stayed on the farm

I should have listened to my old man …

I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods

Hunting the horny back toad

Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies

Beyond the yellow brick road.[25]

The song contrasts the dystopia of a lonely fame with the belonging of home.

But when John needs Taupin most, when in detox after a suicide attempt, Taupin brings John more lyrics to set to music, and the friendship, a “fellowship” in Tolkien’s sense, continues.[26] In a finale scene in which John’s parents, Taupin, and Reid all revisit John in a sort of dream, therapy sequence, John admits that he had to overcome hating himself as he had felt hated in his dysfunctional family life. The relationship to which he fled – manager and male lover John Reid – was also fundamentally flawed, as Reid was incapable of loving John. By contrast, John’s lifelong friend Taupin reaffirms his love and friendship for John, as friend if not as much a family, and a relationship of belonging.

The music of Rocketman reflects John’s personal journey to finding love and a place to belong. Pinball Wizard and Bennie and the Jets highlight John’s self-destructive path and descent into substance abuse; Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me and I’m Still Standing accompany his path back. The film title track Rocketman plays as John finally attempts suicide and is rescued by friends, highlighting his need to belong:

I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife

It’s lonely out in space

On such a timeless flight

The chorus does so as well:

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time

‘Til touchdown brings me ‘round again to find

I’m not the man they think I am at home

Oh, ho, no, no.

I’m a rocket man

Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.[27]

John also ends by finding love (like Mercury) in a same-sex relationship, in which they are currently raising their two young sons. Further, John is credited (in the spirit of Queen’s Live Aid performance, where John also participated) for his personal philanthropy with famine and disease victims in Africa; John finally found both a stable life of belonging for himself and family, as well as for the disadvantaged through his charity work.

Yesterday: Finally-Requited Friendship and Love

In Yesterday, Jack Malik has supportive friends and family (though family plays a minor role) from the beginning, even before a freak cosmic accident renders him dentally challenged but also just one of apparently three remaining people (and the only actual musician) who remember the music of the Beatles.  Perhaps since Jack has a yellow brick road already paved before him and he needs to simply recall and play the music rather than originate it, he can have a less angst-driven persona in a way that neither Mercury nor John could manage. But Jack has the advantage of a self-sacrificing, lifelong friend (and manager) in Ellie Appleton; he also has normal but quirky friends (Rocky) and famous, helpful neighbors (Ed Sheeran) who follow him consistently throughout his journey. Ellie, in particular, believes in and supports Jack in a way that John’s family, manager Reid, and Mercury’s manager and lover Paul never could. Jack does run into exploitative Hollywood managers, but in the end, he forsakes the way of massive wealth and fame that could have been his, instead choosing to love a woman, joining Ellie as a music school teacher, and raising a family together. Jack’s life thus in a way follows that of the 78 year old John Lennon he manages to meet: Lennon states that he is content with life since he has loved (then lost) a woman, travelled the world, and fought for the truth. Lennon has otherwise settled into a house by the sea and enjoys his days as an artist.

The music of Yesterday speaks for itself, though it is less thematic of a personal journey like the playlists of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. Yesterday, Back in the USSR (performed appropriately enough in Russia), Let it Be, Long and Winding Road and Help! (appropriately placed in the film’s story) were included in the extensive soundtrack. Sheeran’s suggestion of Hey Dude and Malik defeating Sheeran’s penguin-themed love song with Long and Winding Road in a contest to compose an original song in ten minutes capped the musical highlights.

Belonging and Identity

All three films demonstrate the need for selfless, caring friends while flashing a warning of the dangers of dysfunctional, dystopic, and selfish relationships. Aristotle and C.S. Lewis light the way. Aristotle claims true friendship combats dystopia, and “holds cities together” so much that “lawgivers are more serious about this than about justice.”[28] He finds both selfish and unselfish forms of love. Selfish friendships are formed merely for the sake of what can be obtained (“utility”) for oneself, or for some pleasure that may be had (for example from a witty person, or even erotic, romantic love); “complete friendship,” by contrast, results from virtuous people, who delight not just in virtue but in the good of the other as well. Lewis incorporates Aristotle’s categories of friendship, but adds a fourth, that of true Charity or “gift-love.” Lewis’s simpler categories include an instinctual affection, friendship in Aristotle’s “complete friendship” sense, and an erotic or romantic love of which sexuality is but a part. But beyond these lies charity, of which God, as host to ourselves as parasites, is the paradigm, “Love Himself.”[29]  Into us He implants images of Himself, “Gift-Loves,” from which we can give love but only imperfectly; we are also given “Need-loves” which relate more to our human nature. Ordinarily bestowed Gift-loves can “never quite simply seek the good of the loved object for the object’s own sake,” but give according to their resources; it is only through Divine Gift-love – “Love Himself working in a man” – that we can act outside of our own interests, and “desire what is simply best for the beloved.”[30] As none of these films make significant reference to faith, we can comment little further, except to say that both the failings of Need-love and blessings, limited though they can often be, of Gift-love are on full display in each film.

The overt sexual messages of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman – much as one may enjoy the music, the films are also intentional statements for alternative sexual lifestyles – can be informed by the discussion of friendship. In Defending Marriage, one (of twelve) points that Anthony Esolen makes about the current popular acceptance of alternative sexuality is how corrosive of normal friendships within a gender (male to male and female to female) it can be. When questions of sexuality hover above friendships meant for other ends, the friendships suffer; the entire sexual revolution, alternative lifestyles or not, Esolen claims, has cast an undue shadow over friendship and even romance. It is to the films’ perhaps unwitting credit that the need for normal male friendships, and a sense of “family” in which sexuality can be forgotten (though sexuality, and gender, lie at the foundation of the naturally reproducing, heterosexual family) is clear; without such friendship, as Aristotle claimed, society disintegrates.

More recent literature on the sexuality issue includes Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian in which a case is made for scriptural support of homosexuality, or at least, a reinterpretation of the five instances in Scripture cited as condemnations.[31] A discussion of Vines’s claims are made in God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines[32], in which six theologians and/or practitioners counter Vines’s claims, while still admitting that it is a very real issue with which many legitimately struggle. One author in this area does offer an insight germane to our discussion of the dystopia of mis-belonging and the need for genuine friendship: Wesley Hill, author of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Hill’s fundamental thesis is the case he builds for supportive friendship within the church for those struggling with issues of sexuality, as does Hill himself. Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?[33]  speaks from the same position as Hill, a Christian who admits to struggling with sexual identity. Allberry’s thesis revolves largely around how disproportionately issues of sexuality have been wrapped up with our overall identity.

The overall case for friendship as an antidote to dystopic society is perhaps best summarized by C.S. Lewis, with an assist from Queen. Just as band members described Queen as a group oriented to “the misfits at the back of the room” who they were “pretty sure they don’t belong either,” C.S. Lewis describes how God views humanity as an orchestra of many valuable, individual parts (in response to the pantheist claim that we simply lose our personality and get subsumed into “the cosmos” upon death):

“But it is also said ‘To him that overcomes I will give a white stone, and in the stone a new name written which no man knows saving he that receives it.’ [Revelation 2:17] What can be more a man’s own than this name which even in eternity remains a secret between God and him? And what shall we take this secrecy to mean? Surely, that each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? … If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note. Aristotle has told us that a city is unity of dislikes, and St. Paul that a body is a unity of different members.”[34]

Such is a dystopian society; the musical metaphor of a divine orchestra, with the glue of Divine Gift-love friendship, cures it. Lewis thus brings the metaphor to its proper conclusion:

the great master Himself leads the revelry, giving Himself eternally to His creatures in the generation and back to Himself in the sacrifice, of the Word, then indeed the eternal dance ‘makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.’ … As we draw nearer to its uncreated rhythm, pain and pleasure sink almost out of sight. There is joy in the dance, but it does not exist for the sake of joy. It does not even exist for the sake of good, or of love. It is Love Himself, and Good Himself, and therefore happy. It does not exist for us, but we for it.[35]

The dystopia of a world without belonging thus fades as the harmony of God’s orchestra, “a family but with no two members the same,” fills the air.

Citation Information

Seth Myers. “Bohemian Rocketmen in a Yellow Submarine: Dystopia, Eutopia and the Music of Belonging.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 3. (Fall 2019): 211-236.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///bohemian-rocketmen-in-a-yellow-submarine-dystopia-eutopia-and-the-music-of-belonging/


[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book VIII.1, 1155a tr. David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2009),142.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, 1988), 71.

[3] Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by Brian Singer (20th Century Fox, 2018).

[4] Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher (Paramount Pictures, 2019).

[5] Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle (Universal Pictures, 2019).

[6] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (The Planet Publishing, 2012), 1. Kindle.

[7] Mercury leaves his fiancée to explore homosexuality, while John was married for four years in between homosexual relationships; both ultimately ended up with male partners.

[8] Bohemian Rhapsody (20th Century Fox, 2018).

[9] The crowd of 131,000 in Sao Paolo, Brazil was the world’s largest paying audience at the time, while that of 300,000 in Buenos Aries, Argentina was the largest single concert crowd in the history of Argentina.

[10] Bohemian Rhapsody (20th Century Fox, 2018).

[11] Bohemian Rhapsody (20th Century Fox, 2018).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 1892. Online https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-version

[15] Freddie Mercury, “Don’t Stop Me Now,” 1978.

[16] Brian May, “Who Wants to Live Forever,” 1986.

[17] Bohemian Rhapsody (20th Century Fox, 2018).

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London: Harper Collins, 2006), 153.

[19] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins, 1955), 173.

[20] Ibid., 173.

[21] Ibid., 160.

[22] C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 70.

[23] Rocketman (Paramount Pictures, 2019).

[24] Bohemian Rhapsody (20th Century Fox, 2018).

[25] Elton John and Bernie Taupin, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Single, (UK: DJM Records), 1973.

[26] Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, an adventurous romance written when such lonely works of introspection as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot were the standards, shocked the literary world “like lightning from a clear sky” (C.S. Lewis, “Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings” in

On Stories (New York: Harcourt, 1982), 83).  Lewis continued “To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism

is inadequate.” (ibid.).

[27] Elton John, Bernie Taupin, “Rocketman” on Honky Chateau (UK: DJM Records),1972.

[28] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, VIII.1 (1155a).

[29] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, 1991), 127.

[30] Ibid., 128.

[31] Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (New York: Convergent Books, 2014).

[32] God and the Gay Christian: A Response to Matthew Vines ed. R. Albert Mohler Jr. (Louisville: SBTS Press, 2014).

[33] Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions about Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction (GoodBook Co.: 2013).

[34] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Collier Books, 1986), 149.

[35] Ibid.