The first time I saw Elton John was on my mom’s little TV in her apartment on West 66th Street in Manhattan. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old.
In the video, the dancers are covered with paint. It’s bright and boundary crossing, all these naked, painted people in public. Mom loved MTV. It was new and scintillating, and revealed the existence of so many emerging worlds. Worlds that had been hidden were now exposed to the light of my eyes.
“Rocketman,” directed by Dexter Fletcher and starring the unbelievably compelling and brilliant performer Taron Egerton as Elton John, tells the story of John’s early years. It unfolds the story of a superstar who looks put together, confident, and at the peak of success, but was crumbling inside. Although we often hear stories of the struggles of mega stars, it never quite gets old to know that even the pinnacle of success can leave a person feeling empty inside.
“Rocketman” opens with John in full costume revealing his addictions and excesses to a group therapy session. He’s walked off the stage straight into rehab. It’s a memory play, and would be a great Broadway show, with the ready-made frame of recovery.
More than what would be a “clothesline” musical, in which songs are strung along the line of a scanty book for the sole purpose of selling tickets on the name of a band, “Rocketman” uses the songs to propel story, heighten stakes, and enhance character. The way the songs are woven into the storytelling is really well done, moves both story and emotional life along seamlessly.
Where Everything Starts
As John begins his process of healing, “Rocketman” tracks back through his childhood, where everything starts. As a boy, he did not get the affection he needed from mother or father, ending in him feeling a separate and extra accessory to their sad lives.
It’s his Gran who takes an interest and boosts him, encouraging piano lessons and additional musical study. But the whole family is lacking love, and wants it desperately. Mother, son, and Gran all give, but their love is not received. To give love with joy, a joy that is not accepted or cherished, is a destructively lonely feeling.
As a young man, John’s got composition down, but needs words. He gets a pack of them in an envelope from a potential manager, and as fate would have it, they’re Bernie Taupin’s (played by Jamie Bell) words. They have a collaboration date at a coffee shop, and team up.
It’s such a brilliant match, obviously. There’s nothing like a truly compatible artistic collaborator to ease the loneliness and increase the drive. Taupin became John’s lyricist, and John his composer, for all those hit early songs, and their collaboration is still going strong.
There is a beautiful sequence where John puts Taupin’s lyrics for “Your Song” to music. When my son was of the age that he liked me to sing to him, I sang him “Your Song,” weeping maybe just a little, singing “I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words / how wonderful life is now you’re in the world.”
‘Just Don’t Kill Yourself with Drugs’
John’s early manager, Dick James (Stephen Graham), packs up the duo and ships them off to Los Angeles to play at Troubador. His parting words are a foreshadowing: “Put on a great f-cking show and just don’t kill yourself with drugs.” It’s at this first show at the Troubador that John begins to come into himself, in a pair of overalls and with the first licks of “Crocodile Rock.”
The crowd, and John at the piano, begin floating. This is because John’s memory is of a transcendent show. Telling the story like this, through the emotional lens of an unreliable, highly imaginative narrator who was high on music and eventually drugs, gives the film a sense of the magic that comes from artistic creation.
Taupin, able to wander through the crowds unknown, getting benefit of fame and anonymity, loves the new experience. “America, man: wide open spaces, beautiful girls—let’s stay here forever,” Taupin says, hand in hand with a beautiful girl at Mama Cass’s house party.
Through the years of excess, John draws his childhood to compartmentalize his feelings. He takes to heart the words of an American soul singer he’d played backup for: “You gotta kill the person you were born to be to be the person you wanna be.”
It’s so necessary where there’s a gap of emptiness, a lack of returned love, to put aside the gnawing hunger it creates, and instead keep giving. John’s joy pours out of him, is given endlessly to fans, and only when he confronts his pain, demons, and anger does he give some of that joy back to himself.
That Overdose in 1975
In 1975, an unwelcome house party at John’s place in LA mirrors the one at Mama Cass’s all those years ago. Of course, back then, Cass was the one strung out and miserable, despite all the excess and glory.
“You’re missing all the fun downstairs,” Taupin tells John, finding him drinking alone in his bedroom. “So long as the fun isn’t missing me, Bern, who gives a sh-t,” John replies. Why can’t excess and glory fill the emptiness? It would be so much easier and straightforward if it could, but it just doesn’t. This is where John’s story turns, and he falls into that emptiness with a suicide attempt, only to appear on stage before a sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium a few nights later.
In an interview with Entertainment Tonight’s Kevin Frazier, John talks about having taken that overdose in 1975. “It was the peak of my career at that point, it was the highlight of my career to play Dodgers Stadium, are you kidding me? But I was not mentally well, before that, obviously. But as a performer, performers are very resilient, and they come on stage and they do their bit and they do it well, they have to, that’s what you do, you’re a performer, and that’s what saved my life, being a performer.”
The lifestyle of an artist is not a particularly healthy one. An artist prioritizes his work process and product, not his physical or mental well being. This often comes with the drive to create, to excel in imagination, to fill that space of need inside. An artist courts at least some measure of depravity to make the work, to sacrifice one’s self and to do so with gratitude, for the release that the artwork gives, and the price it exacts for that freedom of spirit.
John makes that choice, of the work over the man, over and over again, and Egerton captures every moment, nuance, and struggle. For sure there must be happy, well-adjusted artists out there, but I’ve never met any.
It’s Time to Go Home
After heartbreak, tumult with an abusive manager and lover, and skyrocketing success, John goes back home. He feels he needs to speak to his parents about his sexuality, in anticipation of the gossip columnists coming around to ask the uncomfortable questions.
When John goes back to see his dad, he finds that empty space within himself is still there, gaping and cold. All it would take is a kind word from his father. But his father’s got new kids now, and it’s brutal for John to see him so close with them, and loving.
His mother is no better. “You’re choosing a life of being alone forever,” she says. “You’ll never be loved properly.”
Coming back to the reality of the support group, John says, “Real love’s hard to come by, so you find a way to cope without it.” Drugs helped for a while, but then, they always do. “As long as I can remember, I’ve hated myself,” he tells the group. “Maybe I should have tried to be more ordinary.”
As the memory play comes to an end, the characters of his life gather around in memory, his impressions of who they were and how they were to him. They’ve all let him down, but only those for whom you have high expectations can hurt you so badly.
“Rocketman” is a classic structure, a fallen man resurrected after forgiveness. In the end, it’s Bernie who is there, the love of his life in the form of a soul collaborator. John reveals his fear that he won’t be able to create without the depravity. “You’re not scared you won’t be good without it, you’re afraid to feel again,” Bernie says, handing him a sheaf of new lyrics in need of composition.
The final song of “Rocketman” comes from this exchange, “I’m Still Standing.” Seen and heard after this journey, the song is a triumph for an artist who overcame the part where he wanted to sacrifice himself for his work, and began to integrate the two.
While not a direct biopic, “Rocketman” is about the soul transformation and exploration of one of the greatest pop rock stars of all time. It could have capitulated to nostalgic impulses, but instead it gives the feeling of listening to these songs for the first time. “Rocketman,” like Elton John’s music, is irresistible.