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Rocketman to Russia

In an exlusive screening of the Paramount Pictures film, Rocketman, in Moscow late last month, a Russian film distribution company allegedly cut several scenes from Sir Elton John’s biopic, in compliance with the state’s strict “gay propaganda” laws passed in 2013.

The Guardian reported that the musical, starring Taron Egerton, has been cut by an estimated five minutes due to Russia’s law banning “homosexual propaganda.” Further, according to Rolling Stone, the last few minutes of the film––which display a message that Sir Elton John is presently happily raising children with his husband––were also cut. These revisions are in compliance with the strict law’s “aim at protecting children from information promoting the denial of traditional family values,” which includes a ban on the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors”according to the law’s text. A Russian film critic, Anton Dolin, wrote on Facebook in a post that has since been censored that “all scenes with kissing, sex and oral sex between men have been cut out.”

The producers of Rocketman, John and his husband among them, have intended from the beginning of the film’s production to tell the singer’s full life story, no holds barred. John allegedly went through several studios before settling with Paramount. Other companies wanted to tone the screenplay down to PG-13 in order to appeal to a broader and younger audience, but the musician replied that while promises of greater viewership (in turn, greater revenue) were appealing, “I just haven’t led a PG-13 life.” As a result, the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the pill-popping and more promiscuous side of Elton John that came to the fore in his struggles with mental health and addiction throughout the 1970s and 80s. One scene, set to the tune of “Bennie and the Jets,” depicts Elton John diving into a cocaine-fueled orgy. And throughout the film, John is seen popping a multicolored variety of pills, bumping cocaine, and washing it all down with every clear liquor imaginable. 

These depictions, while maybe strong warrant for the movie’s R-rating, are nonetheless appropriate in the sense that they convey the depth of John’s struggles and the unsettling reality behind his fantasy life of stardom. After seeing the film for the first time, I was initially surprised that addiction had so heavily coursed beneath songs that I’d innocently loved like “Crocodile Rock” and “Rocketman.” The latter tune, often described as the magnum opus of Elton John’s career, is set in the movie to John narrowly surviving a suicide attempt.

The producers of the film, in conjunction with Elton John and Paramount Pictures, issued a statement on May 31st, 2019 pertaining to the alleged cuts from the film: 

“We reject in the strongest possible terms the decision to pander to local laws and censor ‘Rocketman’ for the Russian market, a move we were unaware of until today. Paramount Pictures have been brave and bold partners in allowing us to create a film which is a true representation of Elton’s extraordinary life, warts and all. That the local distributor has edited out certain scenes, denying the audience the opportunity to see the film as it was intended is a sad reflection of the divided world we still live in and how it can still be so cruelly unaccepting of the love between two people. We believe in building bridges and open dialogue, and will continue to push for the breaking down of barriers until all people are heard equally across the world.”

And in a follow-up statement, explained the following:

“We are incredibly proud of the movie that we made, which is told in the way that Elton John wanted his story to be depicted. We are releasing the film in its entirety around the world regardless of rating, but like all studios, we must adhere to local laws and requirements in certain territories in which the film is being shown.”

Russia’s “gay propaganda” law (officially, “Federal Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”) is a vehement example of homophobia pandered to the public through policy. The law was passed in 2013, championed by President Vladimir Putin as a vanguard of “traditional family values” and “the sanctity which defends the future of Russia and its children.” The law received support from Russia’s political establishment, which has a long record of supporting laws that repressively prosecute LGBTQ people. Reports from Reuters in September of last year expressed the Russian LGBTQ community’s collective fear of a “crack-down” on their way of life, which included authorities’ harassment, arrests, and jailing of people suspected of publicly displaying “unbefitting homosexual behavior.”

Alongside state-sanctioned oppression, LGBTQ people in Russia must also withstand  socially-sanctioned abuse, harassment, bullying, and rejection from Russian society. The passage of the “gay propaganda” law in 2013 likely reaffirmed these social prejudices, while concurrently limiting or outright restrictng LGBTQ youth’s acess to information on physical, sexual, and mental health––the consequences of which Sir Elton John’s story presents as a plague to a struggling community. “Vicious homophobia has been legitimized by this legislation, and given extremists the cover to abuse people’s basic human rights,” John wrote in an open letter in 2014, in response to the “gay propaganda” law’s immediate effects on the Russian LGBTQ community.

Internationally, advocates for LGBTQ rights and representation have lately been embroiled in a fight for acceptance, as intolerant policies of anti-gay censorship arise beyond Russia. In the United States, for instance, the state of Alabama came under fire earlier this month for refusing to air an episode of the children’s show Arthur, which recently featured a gay marriage between two of its characters. The director of programming at Alabama Public Television, the distribution company responsible for broadcasting PBS shows like Arthur, claimed that “parents have trusted Alabama Public Television for more than 50 years to provide children’s programs that entertain, educate and inspire,” and that the station doesn’t think it’s appropriate for kids to watch the episode without parental “supervision and consent.” While not trying to conflate the relative severity of Alabama prohibition and Russian censorship, these statements do, however, closely mirror the rhetoric deployed by politicians supporting Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws. More often than not, repression of the LGBTQ community stems from a “justification” of defending “traditional family values” alongside “more conservative opinions of the general public” —i.e. the straight cis establishment that still leads the helm of political and public life, especially in the United States. 

The tragedy of this repression is that it comes in a time when exposure to LGBTQ issues is so critical to the life of a community that is entering a new wave in its movement for acceptance. Amid worldwide efforts to decriminalize homosexuality, this June marked one of the most widespread celebrations of Pride to date, according to the Washington Blade. And to note, the community has seen some landmark successes on the state level despite the attacks against them. In late May of 2019, Taiwan became the first government in Asia to legally recognize same-sex marriage. And recently in September of 2018, India celebrated a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court that declared the criminalization of homosexuality unconstitutional. Triumphs like these contribute to the momentum of the international LGBTQ community, as well as the community in the U.S., which looks to these successes as signs of changing times.

However, that’s not to be said that the fight has been won, or even that the LGBTQ community is winning on every front. Russia, conservative U.S. states, and others continuously challenge the movement on its most fundamental levels by censoring and curtailing its public representation in the name of “traditional” values. By using laws, by disseminating homophobic rhetoric, and by excluding LGBTQ persons from political and public life, the LGBTQ community continues to fall victim to institutions of hate and intolerance that perpetuate the struggles that the community faces on a day-to-day basis. Five minutes of Rocketman may seem like small change for a movie centered around the portrayal of a well-known gay musician, but the censorship is a part of a broader intolerance. As advocates for the community continue to raise their voices against these repressive policies, it appears as it will only be a matter of time before states like Russia have to turn and face the music.