Rocketman Reveals Elton John’s Audacity and the Aching Loneliness
Finally saw Rocketman the other night, the Elton John biopic that is part Broadway musical, part psychiatric study. The film-maker’s attempt to create a movie as audacious and over-the-top as the subject himself failed for me, but my appreciation of Elton John’s music remains undiminished.
The film begins in a group therapy session with a dozen people seated in chairs in a circle as you might expect to find in an AA meeting. The people are all in ordinary street clothes, and then this guy walks in wearing a bright orange outfit with horns and wings. He begins by listing all his addictions. The, using flashbacks, we learn the story of his life.
Despite my dislike of certain aspects of the film, it triggered a number of thoughts that I kept reflecting on afterwards. First, though I need to clear the air about what I did not like. The choreographed dance numbers.
When the Coen Brothers re-created these over-the-top scenes with dancers or sea-swimmers in Hail Caesar, it felt like it was intended to be a satirical re-creation of those 30’s Hollywood musicals, which actually worked in films like The Wizard of Oz and Oklahoma. In this instance it felt out of place. Or maybe it’s just that I dislike musicals and the problem is me. I know people who are wowed by this kind of choreography. If you like that kind of thing, I will accept that I am the odd man out. This did not kill my appreciate for the story.
That being said, the film did a fantastic job of revealing the challenges of success and that well-worn adage, “It’s lonely at the top.”
When the movie was over, a haunting line from Hendrix reverberated through me: “Loneliness is such a drag.” Along with that came the chorus of Eleanor Rigby: “Ah look at all the lonely people.” Followed by a remark that Kurt Vonnegut made to me when I said how much I liked Hesse: “You must be lonely.”
In show business people frequently assume a stage name for various reasons. I’d always assumed it was to protect their families, which is a noble motive, or to put on a more glamorous identity. Thus, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. became John Denver and Frances Ethel Gumm became Judy Garland. For Elton John his name change emerged from an ice cold childhood that he simply felt compelled to escape, and a self-hate that bound him in chains.
In becoming Elton John, he could become anything he wanted. Elton was someone quite different from Reginald Dwight, and he would keep it that way.
I’ve previously written about audacity in show business. (cf. Ali, Dylan and Gorgeous George: Audacity as a Marketing Tool) The new thought I had about audacity, though, is this. It’s not audacity alone that makes greatness. Instead, audacity only works when the thing you are drawing attention is golden to begin with. Audacity for its own sake is empty, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
What I mean here is this. Muhammed Ali recited poetry and made outrageous claims, but he delivered the goods in the ring, taking out Sonny Liston in two successive fights, ultimately becoming a legendary boxer. Bob Dylan likewise was audacious, but he backed it up with incomparable songwriting.
In Rocketman we early on get a glimpse of how remarkably talented young Elton John was as a pianist. Had he been an average talent who dressed in over-the-top attire show after show all those years, he would not have captured the audiences he captured in concerts. Nor would he have sold over 300 million records.
I first heard of Elton John in the spring of 1970. “Your Song” was getting air time and when I saw his album at the Farmer’s Market in Bound Brook, New Jersey as a teen I purchased it instantly. These were the days when you absorbed liner notes, and this was the first time I saw the name Bernie Taupin. I vaguely recall someone commenting that Elton John was a homosexual and Bernie Taupin his partner, as if this were a negative against their music. “So what?” I remember thinking. The songs were great. The music was great.
As it turns out Taupin was a lyricist, and in Elton John he found the perfect vehicle for what he’d been writing. Theirs was a mutual admiration society type of thing. A gifted writer meets a gifted song-score creator who is likewise a compelling performer. Each proved to be impossibly valuable to the other. Rodgers and Hammerstein come to mind here.
On that first album I bought songs like “Take Me To The Pilot” and “Border Song” and “The King Must Die” showed that Elton John was going to be more than a one hit wonder. The hits kept coming.
Another of the bright spots in this film had to be the acting of Taron Egerton, who played the Elton John character. He not only acted the role, he sang the songs. Many reviewers at imdb.com said Egerton deserved an Academy Award for the role, and even though he didn’t grab the Oscar there, he did receive the nod at the Golden Globes for Best Performance as an Actor.
The Magic of His Music
As noted earlier, Elton John’s tunes, the music with which he clothed Taupin’s lyrics, we so often effective because it channeled his inner loneliness with an ethereal quality you just can’t capture in words alone. Hence the power behind “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.” And again, that loneliness theme leaps out with these aching lines:
Loneliness was tough
The toughest role you ever played
Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid
The power isn’t simply the lyrics, but the haunting melody that carries these words into the caverns of our soul as if on wings. Season that with a delivery that comes from someone intimately acquainted with the emotion, and you have songs that intimately connect with us in inexplicable ways.
When all is said and done, it’s a “big” film about a unique man who has been a very big star, one of many whose careers were birthed in the Sixties.
Movie Rating: 8 out of 10 stars
Elton John/Bernie Taupin Rating: 14 out of 10 stars
Originally published at https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com.