Warning: This story features Rocketman spoilers!
Don’t call Rocketman a biopic. Sure, it’s the wildly entertaining (if a bit unwieldy) story of how Elton John went from a lonely kid to outrageous hit-making rock star. But everyone involved in the production (including John himself) has underlined the fact that this is a musical fantasy. Translation? Creative liberties abound and familiar songs are used out of sequence to push the narrative forward. Of course, it doesn’t take a real rocket man to figure out that John, as played with ease by the wonderful Taron Egerton, didn’t literally shoot into the sky and disintegrate into a firework in the 1980s. Here’s what else proves that John is not the man you think he is at home.
1. He was a piano prodigy.
FACT. Based on John’s records (and my recent interviews with Egerton and director Dexter Fletcher), much of his onscreen childhood is on-point. That includes a scene in which the young bloke, born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, has an early gift for sitting down at the piano and playing whatever he hears. Indeed, John sat down at his grandmother’s piano at the age of 3. One year later, his mother heard him play a waltz by ear. He also spent five years at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music but gave up the classical stuff to pursue rock n roll. Wise choice.
2. He lifted his stage name from a bandmate — and from John Lennon.
FACT. KIND OF. Before he signed his first contract, Reg tells his bandmate, saxophonist Elton Dean, that he wants to take his moniker. A flummoxed Dean agrees. That’s the real origin of the singer’s first name. But … he didn’t devise his last name based on looking at an old photo of Beatles’ legend John Lennon. Instead, he asked another bandmate, John Baldry. (He also obliged.) That’s not to say John wasn’t a Lennon fan; the two later became close friends and John penned the hit “Empty Garden” in the wake of Lennon’s tragic 1980 death.
3. “Tiny Dancer” was inspired by John’s uproot to L.A.
FACT. MAYBE? John’s longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin has said he crafted the 1972 classic in a hazy state of bohemian culture shock. “We came to California in the fall of 1970 and sunshine radiated from the populace,” Taupin recalled in 2006. “I was trying to capture the spirit of that time, encapsulated by the women we met … they were free-spirits, sexy in hip-huggers and lace blouses. It was so different from what I’d been used to in England.” (This theory would also make sense for anyone who’s repeatedly watched the “Tiny Dancer” singalong tour bus scene in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.) Still, Egerton says he heard the song was about Taupin’s ex-wife.
4. John tied the knot … with a woman.
FACT. In Rocketman, John becomes friendly with sound engineer Renate Blauel in a recording studio for his disco-era Victim of Love album as his life spirals out of control due to drugs, a personal breakup with slimy manager John Reid and a professional hiatus from Taupin. Cut to the pair smiling outside the chapel. Yep, John kissed the bride — but on Valentine’s Day 1984, not 1979 as the film suggests. The unhappy and doomed union lasted until 1988. The now openly and proudly gay singer has been with husband David Furnish for 25 years and they share two young sons.
5. He hit rock bottom just before a New York City show.
FICTION. John’s rehab stay is used here as a framing device to tell his story. (Nothing wrong with that; otherwise, the film would run for four hours.) Dressed up in a devil’s costume, he staggers into a group therapy session and begins listing his addictions. As the movie nears its climax, he realizes he’s in trouble right before taking the stage with a blood-dripping nose at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. With no years listed anywhere on the screen throughout Rocketman, math-inclined audiences may think this scene is set somewhere in the early 1980s. However, John didn’t go to rehab — for food, drug and alcohol addictions — until 1990. And John has stated that he knew he needed to get clean ASAP after he saw footage of himself performing at the funeral of Ryan White, a teenager whom he befriended after White contracted AIDS from a treatment.
6. “I’m Still Standing” was his comeback smash.
FICTION. Ah, it’s lovely to think that John staged his postrehab redemption period with the help of this peppy and uplifting anthem. John actually charted with this single back in 1983 when he was still battling his demons. Many hits followed throughout the decade, including “Nikita,” “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” and “Sad Songs Say So Much.” What was John’s real comeback tune? The live version of the aptly titled “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with pal George Michael in early 1992. Still, after watching John rise and fall and rise again in Rocketman, “I’m Still Standing” makes for a most fitting capper.
Rocketman opens in theaters on Friday, May 31.
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