Russia’s version of Elton John biopic censors depictions of gay sex and drug use

Taron Egerton plays Elton John in "Rocketman."
(David Appleby / Associated Press)

The Russian version of the new Elton John biopic has been stripped of virtually all the gay sex scenes and images of drug use, a censorship move seen as part of a wider crackdown on cinema pushing the limits of the Kremlin’s conservative values agenda.

The modified version of the film “Rocketman” was shown to a select audience Thursday in Moscow’s October movie theater. After the showing, presenters of the film, who had seen it in its original version at the Cannes Film Festival, told the audience that the Russian-language film had been significantly cut.

Kissing and sex scenes between the actors playing Elton John and his lovers had been edited out, as well as a photograph of John and his husband in the closing credits, Russian film critic Yegor Moskvitin told Rain TV, an independent Russian internet news channel, in an interview Friday.


“All the scenes of kissing, sex and oral sex between men” were censored out of the film for its Russian release, Moskvitin said.

“Rocketman,” from Paramount Pictures starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, opens in theaters across Russia on June 6. The Russian distributor of the film, Central Partnership, said it had been edited to “conform with the legislation of the Russian Federation.”

But the Russian Ministry of Culture, which issues distribution licenses for foreign and domestic films, said it did not order the editing of the scenes.

“The Ministry of Culture of Russia did not give any recommendations on the removal of scenes from this picture. This is solely a decision of the company that rolls the tape,” the department’s press service told Interfax, a Russian news agency.

By late Friday, one Moscow movie theater said it would show “Rocketman” uncensored, with subtitles.

On Friday, Elton John and the filmmakers released a joint statement.

“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,” read the statement. “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.”


The written statement continued: “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.”

Movies, books and the arts in Russia have come under increasing pressure from the Kremlin as President Vladimir Putin has pushed for a national identity that is closer to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Kremlin has promoted a conservative, Christian values-based agenda and passed “anti-gay propaganda” laws that make it a crime to present themes of homosexuality to children under 16.

The Kremlin’s conservative rhetoric has affected other films in the last several years, including a 2017 film about a love affair between Russian Czar Nicholas II and a ballerina. Several theaters scheduled to show the movie, “Matilda,” received bomb threats while others were vandalized by religious activists before its release.

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In January 2018, the ministry withdrew the distribution license for the French-British comedy “The Death of Stalin.” The ministry claimed the comedy “incites hatred, humiliates the Russian (Soviet) individual” and showed signs of extremism.

“It’s possible that the ministry didn’t give an official order to censor the film, but unofficially advised in favor of it,” said Anton Dolin, a Russian film critic who has seen both the original and Russian-language versions of “Rocketman.” Paramount Pictures, which does not have a Russian affiliate, was most likely made aware of the edits before the premier in Moscow as representatives of the Hollywood film studio were in attendance that night, he said.


Regardless, the censorship of “Rocketman” “goes beyond what we saw with ‘Death of Stalin,’” Dolin said. “This is the harshest version of sexuality censorship we’ve seen in Russia since the Soviet period.”

During that era, television, movies and the arts were strictly controlled by the government, which frequently removed scenes about sexuality.

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Oscar-winning biopic about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, was released in Russia uncensored in November 2018.

Twitter: @sabraayres

Ayres is a special correspondent.