Elton John Biopic “Rocketman”: Full Backstage Diva Drama or Whitewash?

Will the new biopic "Rocketman" about Elton John and produced by Elton John truly let us see behind all the sequins, feathers and Donald Duck outfits?
Rocketman poster

The Sir Elton John biopic “Rocketman” is not coming soon enough for me! I’ve been a fan practically all my life (sorry Elton, but you’ve been famous for almost 50 years) and I’m hoping that along with the spectacle, the costumes, and great songs, we’ll see his fasten-your-seatbelts life, no holds barred. However, Elton and his husband David Furnish are producing the film. Will they whitewash his story?

My earliest memory of Elton was hearing “Daniel” as a kid while appropriately enough flying on an airplane. Since then I’ve stuck with him through his highs and lows (some very low lows) and even listen to his latest releases (“Wonderful Crazy Night” was quite good). His successes are too numerous to mention and he’s a permanent fixture in the world’s culture, carved into music’s Mount Rushmore with Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, U2 and Madonna (okay, we can debate who gets chiseled in). From the trailer for “Rocketman”, we can see that Elton’s phenomenal rise starting in the late ’60s will be chronicled while wallowing in the treasure of visual splendors from the epic eyewear, outrageous costumes, massive stadium appearances, to the fantasy musical numbers. But there are hints of backstage trouble and that’s what I’m hoping they’ll focus on.

There’s so much trouble to mine from Elton’s life! After reaching those highest of highs artistically and commercially, Elton was exhausted. His audience was exhausted, too. By 1977, the showmanship had begun to overshadow the music which had become too pop (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, “Island Girl”) and he admitted he was (gasp) bisexual in a Rolling Stones interview; at the same time, he split from his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin and announced he would retire from touring . How was his publicist supposed to spin this? Once he hit bottom with a disastrous disco album “Victim of Love”, Elton rehabilitated himself as an Adult Contemporary artist and revived his chart success while descending into drug addiction and deep denial about his sexuality. He married a woman, for god sakes! Now, that’s “too low for zero”.

After going through rehab and coming out as a gay man, Elton reunited full-time with lyricist Taupin and his artistic reputation began to return. People were able to see beyond the gay glitter and realize the remarkable gifts he possessed as a singer, composer, and showman.

I am optimistic that “Rocketman” will show the cracks instead of just spackling things over. If you’ve seen the documentary that his husband directed, “Tantrums and Tiaras”, you know that Elton did not shy away from showing his full diva mode nor demand that it be edited more favorably. In fact, when he saw his bad behavior captured in all its glory, he apparently laughed his head off thinking it was hilarious. So it seems likely we’ll get the truth.

Well, movie truth. It must be noted that Dexter Fletcher, the director of “Rocketman”, also directed “Bohemian Rhapsody” (well, finished it after Bryan Singer was fired). I loved the Freddie Mercury biopic but had problems with the need to distort and time-shift events for the sake of the story (for example, Freddie never quit Queen nor did he come out to his parents just before Live Aid). Please don’t. The truth is usually much more interesting.

One interesting difference is that the lead actor Taron Egerton is not lip-synching but singing everything himself whereas in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Rami Malek’s voice was mixed in with Freddie’s and a Freddie sound-alike. A video of Taron Egerton singing the song “Rocketman” has been released, showing that the actor has the chops even though he’s definitely not a sound-alike. This may be jarring for people but once we’re immersed in the film, I think they will forget the same way they did with Rami Malek.

And there may be sequels! The imagery in the trailer seems to reference Elton’s ’70s period mostly. I can imagine another film showing his triumphant comeback after the drugs and experiments with heterosexuality and earning an Oscar for his song in “The Lion King”, winning a Tony for “Aida”, and breaking our hearts while singing “Candle in the Wind 1997” at Princess Diana’s funeral. Yes, bring back Taron along with Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin and the sexy Richard Madden as Elton’s manager and boyfriend John Reid (who was also a character in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, serving as Queen’s manager).

“Rocketman” is just part of a major bookend to Elton’s life and career. He’s retiring from touring (again) with three-year round-the-world goodbye and he’s releasing his autobiography in October. At 72, he’s not too old to continue making music and remaining a huge cultural presence; still, he may simply want to spend time with his family and enjoy himself. He’s certainly earned some downtime.

The film will be released on May 30, 2019!

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