Over this past weekend, I saw the movie “Rocket Man”, the Elton John biopic.
And while it was a good movie, as these things go – more below – it left me with one huge, nagging question unanswered.
To wit: what ghastly crime did Bernie Taupin see Reginald Dwight/Elton John commit, and promise to keep quiet about forever, in exchange for Elton John turning his “lyrics“ into songs?
Because it say what you will about Elton John’s music – I liked some of it – but Taupin was the one lyricist in the history of the world that can’t get away with mocking and taunting Desmond Child.
There simply has to be some ghastly conspiracy. There’s no other rational explanation.
More seriously, now – I did in fact see the movie over the weekend.
Truth be told, I was way too cool for Elton John when he was at his peak. I loved the Clash, the Ramones, Springsteen, the Iron City Houserockers, Television, Emmylou Harris, the Pretenders – all the stuff that the rest of the kids in my high school weren’t listening to. It was how a tall, geeky nerd with no athletic talent stood out from the crowd (or thought he did).
And I never had much time for pop stars disintegrating in public, as I watched Elton John (among many other celebs back then) collapse in a welter of excess, booze and cocaine. “You think you got it tough?”, I muttered, reading every week in the pages of “Rolling Stone” down at the library. It’s why I had no time for a lot of seventies pop stars; half the reason I couldn’t stand Styx as a kid was Dennis DeYoung’s constant whinging about what a meaningless illusion being a star was; “then go back to Chicago and work in a ^%$#@ meatpacking plant and make some room for someone else”, I muttered.
And he was a piano player. Nothing against keyboard people – I always wanted to be decent on keys. But they have a very different approach to music than guitar players do. Some of his stuff, like most of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, was marvelously melodic, in the kind of way that piano players can tease out of a song in a way guitar players can’t.
So Elton John was…well, not a non-entity for me as a kid. His public image was something that annoyed me; his music sometimes grabbed me (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was guilty pleasure), some didn’t.
“Rocketman” is billed as a “fantasy biopic”, which started me off thinking “what could go wrong?”.
Short answer: Nothing!
In its own way, telling the story of Elton John’s path – from neglected child to piano prodigy to sideman to “overnight star” (it actually took him eight years of gigging, song-writing and session work, given very short shrift in the movie) to one of the biggest selling singers of all time, to recovering addict and, we’re told at the end, happy, loved, well-adjusted elder, is a lot more interesting in the telling that it was in the watching 30-40 years ago. Taron Egerton plays a better Elton John than Elton John himself ever did.
One interesting bit, if you’re a serious music trivia buff; there’s a scene where John and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin are auditioning for a manager (in a scene that could have come out of every iteration of “The Jazz Singer” or “The Star Is Born”). The manager asks John to play some of his stuff. John, at the piano, tosses out a few songs that the manager cuts off immediately…
…that are actually from the early ’80s, when John and longtime Taupin were on the outs – things like “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” and other stuff from John’s fallow years after going through treatment. The manager only warmed up when John played “Border Song”.
It was just one of the ways in which John – one of the movie’s executive producers – seemed to be saying that his career without Bernie Taupin was never quite what it should have been. Every single non-John/Taupin song is associated with failure, with bottoming out (as when “Victim of Love”, one of John’s most vapid songs, is playing in the background during a scene when he meets the partner in his ultimately sham 1984 marriage). In some ways, Taupin is every bit as much the star of the movie as John is.
So I won’t be coy about it – it’s a lot better than I expected.