Yes, I should have known this before walking into Rocketman. There is no way a film of two hours can possibly come anywhere close to capturing the life and work of a musician who has written the soundtrack of 50 years of world history. It’s my fault for wanting it to achieve anything like this. You could say the same about Amadeus, about the life of Mozart. The essential drama in the life of a musician is the music. Audiences want more, or even something else entirely.
What these movies must do is isolate a few distinguishing features of the artist, delight us with some favorite hits, provide a sympathetic story of a person’s struggles and triumphs, give us some dazzling visuals and music, and call it a day. In some ways, this movie about Elton’s difficult early years is a success. The trouble is that this venue with its limitations can’t be anything close to the success of the real thing.
And yet: I came away from the film with a realization. I’ve lived with Elton John’s music from my earliest memories. The timeline of the movie is deliberately mixed up, to the point that it frustrated a fanatic like me to no end. Why is “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” – a pastiche written as a dare – coming before “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me?” It’s because the filmmakers wanted to tell a digestible story of near ruin followed by redemption, which is the story we all want to hear.
Still, the movie caused me to look up the timeline. Maybe this means nothing to you, but did you realize that there were only four years between the 1969 debut album “Empty Sky” and 1973 “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”? As a kid – yes very young – this seemed like an eternity. “Goodbye” introduced me to pop culture and a whole lot of other things (some of which deeply alarmed my long-suffering parents). I was inspired then to look back at ancient history and see what else this phenom had recorded. I became an expert, at the age of 10, and a massive fan, complete with posters all over my bedroom walls and a stack of fan magazines. I have a vague memory of a period in which Elton John’s music was the only thing I wanted to talk about.
Even at a young age, I would wait at the local record bin at the grocery store for his new album to arrive, and then rush home to play it a thousand times, memorizing every note and word. As time went on, his band broke up and the style changed a bit, so I moved on, left my childish enthusiasms and developed other enthusiasms. But Elton John kept going, with ever more interesting releases.
The next time I recall getting seriously interested in his work was at Princess Diana’s funeral. He was tapped, much to the shock of the Royal Family, to play a customized version of “Candle in the Wind” at this highly solemn occasion. As something of a liturgical rigorist, I didn’t like the idea and dreaded the performance. He sat down and performed perfectly. Even I felt his nervousness. But he played and sung like the master he is. It was an amazing triumph. The results were even better than the terrifying Veri Requiem sung from the loft by the choir. I had been wrong. Elton John brought a level of solemnity to the event that not even the old rubrics of the Anglican funeral service could not match.
I realized then that my childhood fantasticism had gradually become, over the years, an irreplaceable artist for the ages. So, no, a movie cannot capture this. It can’t even try. This one probably achieved all it could achieve. Predictably, Elton John himself was charitable toward the film. It’s his way to appreciate all the flow of life with generosity and affection. You can hear it in his singing and his compositions. The audience feels it too.
I resist the idea that movies of this sort should focus on the personal crises of the subject. And yet, as I look at the timeline now, it is utterly shocking how quickly was his rise to fame. A mere five years. No one can possibly prepare for what it is like for one’s brand to become so quickly and utterly detached from the real person. You begin to wonder who you are, and who people think you are. The person you created becomes commoditized as a genius – or a thing to be manipulated, praised, denounced, and constantly judged – while the person you actually are remains as insecure, fallible, and uncertain as ever. No one deals honestly with you, and this feeds cynicism and destructiveness. That this would lead to substance abuse is hardly surprising, and perhaps worth noting.
One striking feature of Rocketman is that it strangely abstracts from the time and place in which the events it features takes place. It doesn’t seem so much like the 70s or the 80s or the 90s. He and his life, plus his relationship with his lyricist, are the only action. And maybe this is right, because one blessed aspect of his art is that he didn’t use his music or his fame to attempt to manipulate the world around him through political pronouncements or tedious activism. He sung for us, you and me, with a personal message. For this reason, I suspect that his legacy will last and last.
It’s a rare artist who elicits the kind of widespread emotional homage that Elton John is receiving right now, hopefully, many years before his career is really over. In times of deep political division, upheaval on the world stage, the rise of crazy ideologies, the cacophony of social media, his music is there for us, fully fifty years of it, to provide for us a soundtrack of the real struggles and triumphs of our lives.
I’ve made only one playlist on youtube. It is this which collects his most touching songs from my perspective.