Little Reginald Dwight pressed a piano key down. Then another. And another.
It wasn’t much. But it was enough. His mother and grandmother watched the boy play along with the radio—finger by finger, note by note. From ear. Without a lick of instruction.
For one rare moment, Reg felt like he was heard. Seen. His Mom, Sheila, rarely tore her eyes away from her own mirror to look at him. His father, Stanley, was rarely home. And when he was, the cold, hard man took no interest in him at all.
But Dad did love music. He had a room filled with jazz records—records Reg wasn’t allowed to touch. The boy was allowed to come in and listen sometimes if he was absolutely quiet. Maybe if he could play music, he’d find value in his father’s eyes.
Maybe he’d find value in his own.
In a few years, Reginald Dwight would change his name to Elton John. He’d team with lyricist Bernie Taupin and, together, they’d lay seige to the music world: 30 albums, more than 50 Top 10 hits, more than 300 million records sold. Acres of sequins. Vats of alcohol. Tables laden with cocaine. And the singer would, by his own admission, eventually have sex with nearly everything that moved. Marriage. Divorce. Sobriety. Knighthood.
But once upon a time, he was just little Reg—a boy pressing notes on black-and-white keys. He’d taken his first step on his yellow brick road, and all the wonders and terrors of his own personal Oz awaited him.
Rocketman chronicles the formative years, the greatest successes and the most colossal stumbles of Elton John, one of the world’s most famous, most talented and most successful musicians. But the movie also suggests that at his innermost core, Elton’s always been on the lookout for both love and meaning—often trying to find them in the very worst places.
As Elton’s odyssey unspools, we can’t help but feel for the guy, especially as a young child when he’s desperately looking to his parents for love and approval. It reminds us that good parenting is critical to every child’s well-being. And when that’s missing, something else—something intrinsic to a child’s soul—goes missing, too. Only his grandmother shows the future Elton John unconditional love and support, and the movie suggests that she, not his mother, was the real rock in the family.
Elton looks to fix that broken thing inside him in a bevy of terrible, self-destructive ways, as we’ll see. He has just one real anchor in his life: Bernie Taupin, his lyricist. They hit it off from the very beginning of their partnership (singing “Streets of Laredo” together at a café), forming a friendship so strong that Bernie calls Elton his “brother.” Though Bernie disappears from Elton’s life during some critical junctures, he always returns—supporting his friend during even Elton’s darkest days.
And let’s also give Elton a round of applause, too, for getting help for his plethora of addictions and compulsions. It’s never easy for someone to admit weakness and seek help, especially when you’re someone as famous as Elton John.
The movie opens with Elton decked out in a winged devil outfit—a metaphor, really, for who the singer’s become by that point. He strides through the halls of what turns out to be a rehab/treatment facility, feathers and sequins falling by the wayside. And as he begins unpacking his story, he also rips off his horns. (It reminded me just a little of Eustace losing his dragon skin in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader.) Eventually, he continues his narration while dressed in only a bathrobe—visually symbolic of how he’s successfully stripped away his own personal demons.
Elton auditions for a music scholarship in what appears to be a church-like sanctuary, complete with massive organ pipes in the background. We see a few seconds of Elton getting married (to a woman) in what seems like a raucous Christian wedding ceremony. One of Elton’s songs includes the line, “Believe in the Lord is the golden rule,” and Elton clasps his hands as if in prayer as he sings.
The real Elton John is gay, and he’s been comfortable identifying himself as such for decades now. (In a couple of closing credits slides, we’re told that the real singer has been married to another man for 25 years, and that they’ve adopted two children.) But it wasn’t always so, and Rocketman spends quite a bit of screentime dealing with Elton’s sexual identity—sometimes pretty explicitly.
Music manager John Reid serves as John’s main love interest in the movie—and we see quite a bit of both of them. In fact, the torrid sex scene between the two of them (we see them entwined from the side and back) is reportedly the first scene depicting gay sex from a major film studio. They later close themselves in a closet for another intimate moment, and the two live together for quite some time.
But the movie makes clear that this isn’t love, as much as Elton would like it to be. John Reid is more interested in being Elton’s manager than lover, and Elton eventually catches Reid receiving oral sex from one of their servants. (Reid also suggests that Elton get a girlfriend to cover up their homosexual affair.)
Elton also may have conflicted feelings for Bernie. When he tries to kiss his lyricist, the heterosexual Bernie tells Elton that he loves the guy, but not like that. (We see Bernie carousing with attractive women in revealing outfits, and there’s a suggestion that he brings two girlfriends to one of Elton’s parties.) Elton receives a kiss from another guy backstage, too. And in some dreamlike song-and-dance sequences, Elton and some barely-clothed guys engaged in suggested, stylized intimacies. He later tells his mother that he had sex with “everything that moved.”
When Elton comes out to his mother, Sheila tells him that she’s known Elton was gay for years. But she also warns him that he’s choosing a lifestyle in which he’ll never know true love—a moment that the movie uses to emphasize Sheila’s callous indifference and insensitivity toward her son. (Later, Elton says he’s finally rejecting his mom’s “rigid” sense of morality.)
When we first meet Elton, he says he’s not sure of his sexual identity. We learn that he initially has a girlfriend (a relationship almost completely unseen in the movie). Rocketman suggests that Elton was quite sincere about his 1984 marriage to Renate Blauel, too, that he was attracted to the woman’s kindness and compassion, if nothing else. (Press at the time speculated that the wedding was merely a cynical cover for Elton’s homosexuality.) But the marriage didn’t last, and the onscreen Elton says that Renate didn’t deserve what he put her through. When Elton’s rehab counseler asks him if marriage made him happy, Elton says to laughter, “Not really. I’m gay.”
The male owner of the famed Los Angeles nightclub The Troubadour makes passes at Bernie. We see lots of couples, both hetero- and homosexuals, dancing and holding each other. As a child, Elton catches his mom having sex with her lover in a car. (Immediately after, Elton hears his dad yelling at his mom, telling her that it’s finally the excuse he needs to leave her and Elton for good.) As he’s being worked on by health workers in a surrealistic sequence, he’s stripped of his clothes. We see most of his nakedness, though his most intimate area is obscured.
Obviously, Elton John’s stage presence was as flamboyant as it gets, and we see plenty of outlandish getups. In one show, he dresses up in garish mockery of Queen Elizabeth I, and his stage makeup includes a small heart drawn on his cheek. We hear ribald references to sexual acts.
Elton is incredibly self-destructive and, after consuming a bevy of nasty substances, he announces to a group of revelers at his house that he’s now going to kill himself. He falls into his own pool and is eventually pulled out and whisked to a hospital (where, in a surreal sequence, he sings and suffers on a hospital gurney). He falls down a flight of stairs, too.
We learn that, along with all his other problems, Elton has anger-management issues. He throws a chair and yells at people quite a bit. He’s roughed up and punched in the face by someone else, too, and we see him put makeup over the injury before going on stage.
A transitory musical number features Elton as a boy sing “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” and we see people (including couples) dance-fight as the song rumbles on.
We hear nearly 30 f-words and at least a dozen s-words, along with one use of the c-word and two of “f-g.” (One of the latter, though, refers to the word’s common British usage—referencing a cigarette.) We hear “b–ch” loads of times, mostly in the context of Elton’s hit, “The B–ch is Back”. Also on the naughty linguistic docket: “b–tard,” “h—” and several uses of the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused twice, and Jesus’ name is abused once.
When Elton signs his first big deal and is sent off to America to do a few shows, record-company publisher Dick James tells the singer/songwriter, “Just don’t kill yourself with drugs.” Elton doesn’t—but he tries pretty hard.
At first, he seems to take Dick’s admonition to heart, staying away from liquor even at a raucous party hosted by Mama Cass (of The Mamas & the Papas fame). But when John Reid starts making moves on him and offers him a drink, Elton accepts, and it’s pretty much all downhill from there.
We see the superstar drink constantly—straight from the bottle sometimes. During his short marriage, Elton wakes up and immediately makes himself a massive vodka-and-orange-juice Screwdriver: His wife tears up as he drinks. (“I’m sorry,” Elton says. “I know,” she answers.) He snorts a huge quantity of cocaine, too, and we see him pop the lids off vials of prescription pills in preparation to abuse them as well. We can’t document every instance of drug use here—there’s just so much of it—but Elton admits to his mother that he’s abused pretty much every substance known to man and (he lies) enjoyed it all.
He’s not the only one to abuse substances, of course. Lots of people over-imbibe, and one man shouts, “I’m so drunk and [someone] just lent me his car!” The guy proceeds to drive that car to another wild party.
People smoke everything from cigarettes to marijuana joints, tobacco pipes to cigars to drug bongs. An English tavern is filled with mugs of beer and cigarette smoke.
Elton was bulimic as well, and we see him vomit into a toilet.
When we first see Elton John, it’s in a rehab treatment facility. “My name is Elton Hercules John,” he recites. “And I’m an alcoholic. And a cocaine addict. And a sex addict. And a bulimic. And …” The list goes on.
So he was. So we see onscreen, often in lurid detail.
Rocketman is many things: a celebration of Elton John’s incredible catalog of music, an examination of his success, a surreal festival of song and dance, a cautionary tale about excess.
But its essence goes back to little Reginald Dwight sitting at the piano: How that little boy lost himself and, in so doing, lost his way. And how—at least on the movie’s terms—that little boy found himself again.
Movies like these—as toe-tapping and as crowd-pleasing as they can be—are hard to pull off responsibly. Even as Rocketman chronicles Elton’s many missteps and shows us his failures, it can’t help but unintentionally celebrate them in a way. This is, after all, the stuff that rock stars are made of, right? The lurid sex (be it same-sex or no). The bottles of booze. The mountains of cocaine. It’s right there in the cliché: sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
While in treatment, Elton confesses to Bernie Taupin that he’s worried about getting clean. What if the alcohol and drugs fueled not only his self-destruction, but his brilliance?
Bernie dissuades him of that notion. “You’re scared to feel again,” he tells Elton. And it’s true. But the pairing of musical success and hedonism is already one of pop culture’s strongest myths—and this movie, whatever its intentions, adds just another cord to that myth.
While some might hope that Rocketman is another Bohemian Rhapsody—a 2018 film about, coincidentally, another British-based act managed by the prolific John Reid¬—the two movies are quite different.
Where Bohemian Rhapsody was a more-or-less linear biopic of Queen frontman Freddy Mercury, Rocketman pulls in elements of a fever dream—making it more imaginative, but also more inclined to play with the facts. Where Rhapsody tiptoed into Freddie Mercury’s complex sexual life, Rocketman jumps into Elton’s with both feet and a hammer. And while the PG-13 Rhapsody kept its content relatively restrained, Rocketman turns Elton’s outsized rock-and-roll lifestyle into something as lurid and inescapable as one of Elton’s outlandish, Liberace-like costumes.
Rocketman may not always be strictly true to its history, but it is true to its name. It sometimes soars. And for discerning viewers, it sometimes explodes.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.