Elton John's Real Life Is Still More Interesting Than "Rocketman"

Rocketman, though it at least acknowledges the queer nuances of Elton John’s life, shows how limited Hollywood’s approach to gay celebrity stories still is.

In the opening scenes of Rocketman, the new Elton John biopic directed by Dexter Fletcher, John (played by Taron Egerton) abruptly rushes out of a big concert and bursts into a rehab meeting in full sequined regalia. “I know how this bit goes,” he says, confessing to a laundry list of demons, ranging from drug abuse to excessive shopping. The “bit” he’s referring to is the script of recovery programs. But he might as well be talking about the well-worn rock star biopic formula, which in recent years is expanding — finally — to include gay men.

The unprecedented success of last year’s Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody, now the most profitable biopic in history, seemed to whet the music industry’sand Hollywood’s — appetites for the genre. Rhapsody, which Fletcher also directed (after taking over from Bryan Singer) was able to combine a jukebox musical with a celebrity gay man’s story, told with just the right amount of gravitas — and queer tragedy — to give it an angle but also keep mainstream audiences comfortable. (That it was rated PG-13 and had no gay sex helped ensure this.) Rami Malek’s performance as Mercury could successfully be sold as Oscar-worthy in large part because the Philadelphia-style storyline about Mercury’s death from AIDS complications made the film seem more serious than it actually was.

There isn’t the same level of faux gravitas in Rocketman, which, like its flamboyant protagonist, mostly just wants to have fun. But Elton John’s story and celebrity would seem to provide somewhat similar fodder for a Hollywood blockbuster. The film generally manages to better toe the line between the kind of overly broad sentimentality required of all biopics and the specificity of John’s story as a gay man. But the ways in which this movie does echo Rhapsody hint at how limited mainstream Hollywood’s approach to gay celebrity stories still is. There's clearly an appetite for stories about queer cultural figures, and plenty with fascinating stories to be told. But when will filmmakers start centering their queerness, and all its complications, in the telling?

Elton John and his husband were involved in Rocketman’s production, so the result is, to some degree, his vision. Yet in many ways, the movie’s similarity to Rhapsody is a reminder that individual people — even rich, powerful celebrities — can only do so much within existing institutions. John made headlines when he mentioned that both Focus Features and Walt Disney Studios passed on the film because he refused to tone down the sex and drugs. “I just haven't led a PG-13 rated life," he said. But the finished movie is in fact a largely Disneyfied version of his story, despite a much-touted gay sex scene.

Rocketman is told through flashbacks as John recounts the backstory that leads him to his rehab stint. Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, John loves the piano and is close to his grandmother and mother, but has a rocky relationship with his dad. The film is strongest in the beginning, as it tries to turn John’s queer childhood into a universal story of suburban alienation.

When will filmmakers start centering their queerness, and all its complications, in the telling?

John is subjected to gender policing by his dad, who snaps, “Stop looking at that, you’re not a girl,” when he finds John reading his mom’s fashion magazine. “Don’t be soft,” he tells him at another moment. These are the kind of specific experiences that shape many gay men’s lives, and are still rarely seen in movies. (In Tantrums & Tiaras, the 1997 documentary about his life directed by John’s husband, David Furnish, John’s real-life mother is more succinct about his dad’s relationship to him: “I don’t think he liked you very much.”)

Taking the jukebox musical approach, the movie effectively uses John’s songs to capture emotional truths. “The Bitch Is Back” is incorporated as a big musical number that segues into his sad suburban childhood. His parents and grandmother sing the early-aughts song “I Want Love” to illustrate John’s daddy issues and the coldness of his family life. When it leans into fantasy in this way, the film creates some magical moments.

Initially, Rocketman sets up John’s struggles with his identity in specific terms. The movie devotes a lot of time to his relationships with his longtime musical partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell); his mother, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard); and his manager turned lover, John Reid (played by Richard Madden). We see John coming to terms with his sexuality through his relationships with Taupin and his mother. His panic is palpable when a tour member outs him to Taupin (“What about the fact that you’re a fag?”) before he’s come out to Taupin on his own terms, but their relationship is cemented when Taupin says it doesn’t matter to him.

The film also effectively captures the coldness of straight parents, and gay men’s complicated relationships with their mothers. After nearly hyperventilating before telling his mom that he’s a “poofter, queer,” she reacts with a blasé tone: “Oh for God’s sake, I know that, I’ve known for years.” She adds, “I just hope you realize you’re choosing a life of being alone forever; you’ll never be loved properly.”

And, in this film at least, that becomes true. Despite all the hubbub about keeping in sex scenes and drugs, the film, much like Bohemian Rhapsody, barely skims the surface of John’s relationships with men, or how he struggled to find a functional relationship as a gay man. We get little sense of the emotional specifics of his relationship with Reid. At one point Reid, who seems domineering, punches John in the face, but there is no sense of whether it was an abusive relationship. (Reid apparently remained friends with John in real life and appears in Tantrums and Tiaras.)

After their breakup, John marries a woman, the sound engineer Renate Blauel, but there is no sense of why he suddenly marries her, beyond — as he says in one of the rehab flash-forwards — the fact that he was drunk. Some critics have suggested that framing his marriage to Blauel as a denial of his gay identity is a failure of bisexual representation. But what the bi erasure police seem not to understand is that queer men, especially gender-nonconforming ones, feel the harsh gaze of heteronormativity to such a degree that “choosing” a heterosexual partner often does not occur freely. Further, John himself has called himself gay since 1988. This marriage wasn’t part of the original script, and was added on later by Fletcher, the straight director.

The film sets up the usual tropes of the struggles of being gay, but then, like Bohemian Rhapsody, doesn't seem interested in depicting a resolution to those struggles by including gay partnerships or gay community in the film. Perhaps it’s too much to ask a 2019 biopic about a gay man to make nuanced connections between internalized homophobia, addiction, and an ill-advised marriage to a woman.

Instead, everything in the second part of the film gets framed as a consequence — without cause — of drug and alcohol abuse. In rehab, looking back at this era, John contextualizes these struggles thusly: “I hated myself, I started acting like a cunt in 1975, resentful for things that just don’t matter.” We get scenes of his “bad” acting out, as he dances at clubs in black briefs, and his nosebleeds from cocaine consumption. In a scene with his mother, he tells her, “I don’t want your frigid, fucked-up ideas about anything. I’ve fucked everything that moves.”

Another movie might have presented that moment as a gay son attempting to free himself from a straight parent’s heteronormative ideas. But the way it’s presented here, his outburst becomes part of his downward decline into drugs. His demons are somehow drugs themselves — he’s suddenly scared that he won’t be as good without them — and he apparently overcomes this struggle when his writing partner Taupin, who’s presented as a kind of straight savior figure, tells him, rather vaguely, that he just needs to...be himself.

The biopic’s title comes from John’s song “Rocket Man,” a Bowie-esque take on otherworldliness. Despite seeming to be about a married man, it includes lines about potentially hidden identity, like “I'm not the man they think I am at home.” In one scene, where John throws himself in a pool in a melodramatic suicide attempt, we hear snatches of queer-coded things he’s heard throughout his life, like “you’re such a shy little boy,” “you’ll lead a life of loneliness.”

He looks at the bottom of the pool and sees his piano-playing childhood self as an astronaut, an interesting interpretation of “Rocket Man” as speaking to his childhood alienation. That is one strong scene where the film — through the voiceover — includes his queerness as part of its narrative about being yourself. The way it fits childhood queerness into a squeaky-clean parable about difference is a commendable thing, and rare in this kind of blockbuster filmmaking.

Despite all the hubbub about keeping in sex scenes and drugs, the film, much like Bohemian Rhapsody, barely skims the surface of John’s relationships with men.

But instead of trusting that the search for gay identity can itself be universal, and tracing that theme through the story of John’s life, the film arguably subsumes queerness into a larger metaphor about “ordinariness.” The movie’s trailers have emphasized that arc — “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be,” says a band member in one; Taupin tells John in another, “Remember who you really are.” In one of the worst lines of the film, John himself says: “Maybe I should’ve tried to be more ordinary.” “I think I’m okay with strange,” he says toward the final scenes.

This banal framing elides some of the more complicated — and frankly, dramatically effective — realities of coming to terms with queer sexuality as a public figure, which are ignored in the film. In real life, John first discussed his sexuality in Rolling Stone in 1976, describing himself as “bisexual to a certain degree.” He experienced a backlash and radio stations wouldn’t play his songs. There is now a sense that rock was somehow gay-friendly because it was full of straight men in makeup and androgynous outfits, like David Bowie. But Bowie, for instance, famously — and homophobically — called Elton John “the Liberace, the token queen of rock.” A friend of John’s told a biographer: “From Elton’s point of view, here was this guy who had made it as a pretend poof, and here he was a real poof, having to be a pretend straight.” (In contrast, Elton John and Freddie Mercury were friends.)

In 1988 John finally told Rolling Stone that he was “comfortable being gay.” But Rocketman doesn’t necessarily reflect that. It seems easy enough to imagine another version of the movie structured more like the aggressively heterosexual 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, in which John’s decadeslong relationship with Furnish becomes the emotional and narrative anchor of the story. Instead, Furnish is relegated to a footnote in an update before the credits roll — suggesting that perhaps Hollywood still doesn’t see a happy marriage as a happy ending in its own right, if the marriage is between two men. I can already see the reader emails saying: Who cares about his sexuality! The movie is about his music! But the music — with its references to Oz and yellow brick roads — is chock full of queerness. And the movie isn’t really about his music, it’s about his life.

It’s not just classic rock that has become the hot new Hollywood intellectual property trend in the past few years — it’s once-closeted gay men’s stories. MGM is going to produce a film about Boy George. And there are now competing biopics of composer Leonard Bernstein, as Jake Gyllenhaal and Bradley Cooper stumble over each other to achieve the cultural cachet of being straight actors “brave” enough to “play gay.” But even as these films are ostensibly about gay men, they seem unable to trust that the full array of gay experiences — like gay relationships, or finding queer community — can be a universal tale unto itself. Rocketman is, in some ways, a sad reminder that even in its most supposedly fantastic imaginings, Hollywood fantasies can still be so straight. ●

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