It’s not always a happy story, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues. However, in the end, you’ll find that Elton John is Still Standing. So all you Tiny Dancers and Honkey Cats give a minute of your time and hit that play button. And Don’t Let The Sun Go Down without a download!
To kick off this episode we are going to do a review of the movie Rocketman. We will do our best to limit the spoilers but we do have one big one and we’re just going to drop it now…he’s gay. Hope we didn’t ruin the movie for you but it’s true. Elton John is a homo. He’s also a husband, a recovering addict, and one of the best selling artists of all time. And the movie did a fantastic job of telling his story.
Rocketman is a biopic musical that beautifully weaves the songs of Elton John in with his life story. It is packed with raw moments of gut-wrenching lows and triumphant highs. The acting of star Taron Egerton is fantastic. The sets and special effects are riveting and essential in conveying the intensity of the moment. Director Dexter Fletcher cannot be praised enough for his ingenious new vision in the world of blending biopics and musicals. And to top it all off, aside from some song placements and timelines, the story is very accurate to Elton John’s life. Which is probably due to the fact that he was an executive producer.
What are we saying? Go see this movie. Whether you’re a musical fan, an Elton John fan, or just a proud queer who loves queer history – you will enjoy this movie. It currently has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and we’re going to give the movie 5 stars. From every perspective it is excellent. With just enough drama and well place exaggeration to mix real life with fantasy. You will not be disappointed if you see this movie.
So that is our review of Rocketman and now we’re going to tell the story of Elton John. There will be “spoilers” so to speak. Since we are telling you the story of his life and comparing some parts to storylines in the movie. But don’t worry, we don’t believe it will diminish the experience of the show in any way. So let’s head back to March 25, 1947, when Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born in Pinner, Middlesex, England. Stanley and Sheila Dwight were both students and lovers of music. In fact, in his spare time, Stanley was a trumpet player for the Bob Millar Band. For his day job though he was an Air Force Lieutenant. In the movie, Stanley is depicted as withdrawn and detached from his son and family. Which was true to the story. Elton would later say of his father:
“He was a tough and unemotional man. Hard. In the RAF. He was dismissive, disappointed and finally absent”
Perhaps Stanley’s distance was attributed to the strained relationship he had with Sheila (Elton’s mother). There were mixed accounts about when the couple was married. Some said they were married 2 years before Elton was born. Others stated they didn’t formally marry until Elton was six. It seems more likely that the latter is true. Stanley probably had no intention of marrying Sheila. But after getting her pregnant, due to the standards at the time and his employment in the Air Force, he felt he had no other options. By every account, the couple hated each other and Elton grew up hearing vicious fights between the two. “They gave every impression of hating each other” Elton said, continuing:
“My dad was strict and remote and had a terrible temper; my mum was argumentative and prone to dark moods. When they were together, all I can remember are icy silences or screaming rows. The rows were usually about me, how I was being brought up.”
The dysfunctional relationship certainly wore on Sheila. But there were also her own personal demons. Actress Bryce Dallas Howard, who played Sheila in the biopic, did her own research on Elton’s mother. And she found that the movie had indeed portrayed the aloof mother correctly. Howard told Vanity fair:
“Elton was a child prodigy, and that was shocking and complex because she did feel that her life was not her own. A lot of resentment came from that. But it definitely crossed over—the cruelty and the kind of mean persona and, you know, just not showing love, ever. It makes me wonder if she wasn’t well, possibly. It had shifted into a place that was toxic and dangerous.”
And Elton was an incredibly talented musician. As young as 6, he was able to hear a song and re-play it on the piano. Even complicated tunes such as The Skater’s Waltz by Winifred Atwell’s. By age 7 he finally received formal piano lessons and began to perform at school events and at 11 he was sent to the Royal Academy of Music. This was due to the help of his grandmother and not his parents. The one constant and supportive person in Elton’s young life was his grandmother, Ivy Sewell. To add to his musical repertoire, on his 9th birthday Elton was given an Elvis Presley record and officially fell in love with rock-n-roll.
Over the next few years he honed his musical abilities and by age 15 was the official weekend pianist at a bar in the Northwood Hills Hotel. He was still going by the name Reggie and but had added his infamous glasses – sheerly out of style and not because he needed them. The regular gig was a good distraction for the young man who was watching his home life implode. In 1961 Stanley Dwight left Sheila. According to the movie, she was having an affair with a local painter named Fred. Whether or not that is true, shortly after Stanley left, Sheila did marry a guy named Fred. Which was actually a good thing as Fred (Who Elton affectionately called Derf – Fred spelled backward) was much more supportive and involved than Stanley had been.
As for Elton’s relationship with his biological father, Stanley remained detached from his eldest son. This was a constant source of pain for the entertainer. He would say of his father:
“My father was sealed off from my talent and I never knew why. Was it homophobia? Was it fear? That was a painful loss for me. But it was also a painful loss, I think, for my dad. That’s what prejudice does to people…It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to relate to kids. He left us, remarried, and had another family, and by all accounts was a great dad to them. It wasn’t children, it was me.”
Reeling from the pain and rejection of his father, Elton dove deeper into his music. He briefly formed a band called the Corvettes and then in 1962 the popular R&B band Bluesology. The group was soon touring Europe on a Soul Tour with African American performers such as the Isley Brothers, Major Lance, and Patty LaBelle and the Bluebelles. During all of this, Elton also worked for a publishing company and kept his solo gig at the Northwoods Hill Hotel. Then in 1966, he met Long John Baldry. An English Blues player who brought Elton and Bluesology on as his supporting band. Together they would play all over England, including the infamous Marquee Club. Which was especially popular in the ’60s and ’70s.
Long John would become a central figure in Elton’s life. In fact, contrary to the movie’s suggestion, Elton chose the last name John in reverence to his friend and not in respect to John Lennon. Baldry was also significant in that he was an out gay man and no doubt was an inspiration to the struggling, and closeted, homosexual. For some reason – that we can’t find – Baldry isn’t mentioned in the Rocketman film. But he would continue to be a heavy influence in Elton’s life for many years. Which is why, when Elton answered a magazine ad in 1967, he gave the producer a stage name. Elton (swiped from one of Bluesology bandmates) and John (for his dear friend and mentor. At 20 years old, Reggie Dwight introduced the world to Elton John.
That same year Elton met his lifelong best friend and business partner, Bernie Taupin. The movie does a fantastic job of showing a beautiful, platonic friendship between a gay man and a straight man. Which is the truth of Elton and Bernie’s relationship. For the first few months of their partnership, their correspondence was through the mail. Ray Williams of Liberty Records put the lyricist and composer in touch. And soon Elton was putting tunes to Bernie’s lyrics faster than the writer could mail them out. Eventually, the two met in person and instantly struck up a friendship. In 1968 they were hired by Dick James of DJM Records to create songs he could sell to other entertainers.
While the two artists also worked on some of their own productions, there were some personal struggles. In an attempt to keep up appearances, Elton entered a brief affair with a secretary names Linda Woodrow. In fact, they got engaged. But Long John Baldry wasn’t having any of this nonsense. “You’re more in love with Bernie than you are this girl”. He told Elton one night. And that was probably true. In fact, as depicted in the movie, Elton did make a move on Bernie. But the artist gently let his friend down and the pass never hurt their friendship or partnership. But Elton’s struggle with his sexuality did wreak havoc on things. During his hetero affair, he and Bernie didn’t finish a single song. Feeling broken, Elton did what he called a “Woody Allen” attempt at suicide. He stuck his head in the oven and turned on the gas. But Bernie found him and pulled Elton out. Later, Bernie would write the song “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” in reference to the event.
Finally, Elton cut things off with Linda and refocused his attention on music. It wasn’t until 1970 that they got a break and in April of that year they released their debut album, Elton John. The song Your Song hit number 7 on the English charts and number 8 on the American Billboard 100. This was Elton’s first hit single. The album itself did incredibly well-hitting number 4 and number 5 on America’s and England’s top 200 charts.
That August Elton would play at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. He was a smashing success. Just a few months later they dropped another album Tumbleweed Connection. And a few months after that – at the start of 71 – they released Madman Across the Water with the hit single Tiny Dancer. During this time Elton met John Reid at a 1970 Christmas party. In the film, it appears Reid has discovered Elton at the Troubadour. But in reality, Reid admits he didn’t see much star potential in John.
But he did see boyfriend potential. The two quickly struck up a romance and soon moved in together. Soon, Elton persuaded Reid to become his manager. And the next 5 years were some of the most successful in Elton and Bernie’s career. In 1972 they dropped the album Honky Chateau which featured one of Elton’s most iconic songs Rocketman, and the rocking single Honkey Cat. The following year the record Don’t Shoot me I’m Only the Piano Player hit number 1 around the world and bore songs like Crocodile Rock and Daniel. The singer and songwriter both joined on with MCA Records that same year.
In October of 1973 Goodbye Yellow Brick Road would drop and stay at the top of the charts for 2 months. The critically acclaimed album was filled with hits like Bennie and the Jets, Candle In The Wind, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin’ and more. This album would launch Elton John into SuperStardom heights. By 1974 MCS Records had released an Elton John’s Greatest Hits album which sold over 16 million copies. And the singer was only starting his career. He did a collaboration with John Lennon and recorded the entire Caribou record- carrying the song The Bitch Is Back– in a two week stretch between touring gigs.
Elton also began dabbling in some movie work, adding some work to the film adaptation of the rock opera Tommy. The 1975 autobiographical album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy came out and hit number one of the charts. It was the first time a non-music album had topped the charts. The autobiography followed Elton and Bernies early music careers. But it didn’t follow Elton’s personal life. The performer was still in the closet. Living with his boyfriend and manager John Reid who was becoming physically abusive. Reid was known to have a temper. In fact, in 1974 when a local bar ran out of whiskey, the music manager got into a brawl with the staff. He was charged with slapping a female reporter who called him a poof (a British insult for queers). Another time he spent a month in prison for beating and kicking a journalist – we could not find the reason why. And he was arrested in America when he beat a doorman with his cane. And on and on the list goes.
While Reid says these were all “isolated incidents done in the defense of Elton and Bernie”. The truth seems more likely that John Reid is an abusive person who believes it’s ok to respond to incidents with physical force. Elton has spoken of the physical abuse he endured while he was with Reid. Their relationship was quite torrid with bouts of depression and heated arguments plaguing the two lovers. In addition, Elton had begun to sink deeply into drug abuse and alcoholism. The movie speaks of his desire to be and feel loved. But Elton could not yet love himself. He couldn’t admit that he was gay. During “Elton Week” in 1975, the singer suffered a cocaine overdose. He also began to battle bulimia. Later that year, he and John Reid officially broke up, though John would stay on as Elton’s manager for the next 20 plus years.
In 1976 Elton came out as bisexual in Rolling Stones Magazine. And he began quite frenzied blur or sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Two albums dropped again in 76, Elton’s 10th and 11th. Here and There and Blue Moves which featured another of his most iconic hits Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Between the years of 1972 and 1975, Elton John had 7 consecutive albums hit number one of the charts. But the meteoric success was truly taking its’ toll. In 1977 Elton announced he was retiring from performing (though not music altogether) and, for a brief time, he and Bernie split up. Elton did continue to record. A Single Man and A Victim of Love dropped in 1978 and 1979, the 21 to 33 in 1980. The next few years were rather dry as Elton finally went to rehab to address his addictions.
The year 1983 was a bit of a rebirth and Elton and Bernie teamed up again to produce Too Low for Zero. In the biopic, it seems like this is where everything begins to go right for Elton. But he was still a ways off from finding happiness. While the album did well with songs like Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues and I’m Still Standing, Elton was struggling with relapse and his families rejection of his sexuality. His mother, in particular, was cruel in the ways she cut him down. He said of this time:
“This is how bleak it was: I’d stay up, I’d smoke joints, I’d drink a bottle of Johnnie Walker and then I’d stay up for three days and then I’d go to sleep for a day and half, get up, and because I was so hungry, because I hadn’t eaten anything, I’d binge and have like three bacon sandwiches, a pot of ice cream and then I’d throw it up, because I became bulimic and then go and do the whole thing all over again,”
As he reached for acceptance, Elton proposed to and married sound engineer Renate Blauel on Valentine’s day in 1984. In a bizarre move, Elton made John Reid his best man at the wedding. And in true Reid fashion, he was arrested later that day for beating up a journalist.
The wedding day should have been an Omen that the marriage was doomed. Of course, Elton knew he wasn’t being fair to Renate. Ironically, he released the album Breaking Hearts that same year. But he continued to hide for a while longer, hoping the gay would go away. Charging of as if everything was fine, Elton joined Freddie Mercury and other performers for the 1985 Live Aid performance. Over the next two years, the entertainer would collaborate with several artists on various projects.
In 1987, Sun Magazine released an article that accused Elton of having sex with rent boys. Elton sued the magazine for libel and won the suit. But perhaps there was some truth to the story. Either way, his marriage was in shambles and that same year, Renate left Elton. He re-entered rehab and began to be a little more open to friends and family about his sexual orientation. He also started helping in the fight against Aids. His 1988 collaboration That’s What Friends Are For raised funds for Aids research. And in 1990, Elton John publicly came out as a gay man and entered rehab for the last time.
The turning point seemed to be when he launched the Elton John Aids Foundation. The Fix – and online resource for those in recovery, reported this interview:
“During my addictions in the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic surfaced, and the government took no notice of it. I lost so many friends to AIDS and I didn’t put myself on the line because of the addictions I was going through…The drugs turned me into a monster.”
The 70-year-old singer said that meeting Ryan White, who was battling AIDS, helped inspire his sobriety.
“I had the luck to meet Ryan White and his family. I wanted to help them, but they ended up helping me much more. Ryan was the spark that helped me to recover from my addictions and start the AIDS foundation,” he said. “Within six months I became sober and clean”
The year after getting sober, Elton won the 1991 Brit Awards for Best British Male. He also began to find love, when he met Canadian filmmaker David Furnish. Though he continued to produce music, in 1994 Elton branched out and wrote the soundtrack for the Disney classic The Lion King. He would win an Academy Award and a Grammy for the song Can You Feel The Love Tonight. That same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By 1997 Elton had transformed The Lion King into one of the highest grossing musicals of all time. He continued to explore his knack for Broadway and would earn a Tony Award for the 1999 production of Aida. And in 2005 he scored Billy Elliot the Musical which has grossed over $800 million and has won over 80 international awards. In his entertainment career, Elton John had released over 30 studio albums, scored 9 movie and musical soundtracks, and grossed over 200 million in record sales.
For all of his legacy in entertainment, Elton has also made strong charitable contributions. The Elton John Aids Foundation has raised over $300 million through galas, parties, and auctions. In addition, Elton and Bernie’s song Candle In the Wind was revised in 1997 when Elton’s good friend Princess Diana was killed in a car crash. Elton performed the new revision at her funeral at it became a worldwide hit over-night. All proceeds were donated to her charity and have raised over 70 million dollars. The single set the Guinness Book of World Records for best selling single ever.
As for his personal life, Elton has found happiness. In 1998 he fired John Reid as his manager when he found out the crook had embezzled over 20 million dollars from Elton. No doubt ending this toxic relationship was good for Elton as he has been able to talk about the relationship much more honestly in recent years. In 2008, He and David entered a civil union, as that is all that was allowed at the time. They had their first child (Zachary Jackson Levon) – through a surrogate – on Christmas day in 2010. In 2013, their second son Elijah Joseph Daniel was born. And the following year in 2014, after 21 years together, David and Elton were officially married. They married just a few months after same-sex marriage became legal in the U.K. We don’t know who the best man was this time but we’re certain it wasn’t John Reid. Maybe it was Bernie. 50 years later the friendship is still going strong. And as for sobriety? Elton has been sober for over 28 years. It does work, one day at a time.
In sobriety, there is a phrase on every “chip” that is passed out. These chips are a visual reminder of a person’s time sober and around the edge are the words “To Thine Own Self Be True”. In order for a person to find real happiness, they must first be true to themselves. All the money, all the fame, all the glamour couldn’t save Elton John from himself. And if you’re thinking you can’t be an artist and be sober? Remember, half of his success came AFTER he got clean. Honesty is the best gift we can give ourselves. We’ll close this story with these words from the icon:
I am a survivor, I’ve survived a lot of things. Life is full of pitfalls, even when you’re sober. I can deal with them now because I don’t have to run away and hide
Your recommended resources are Rocketman the biopic in theaters. And Love Is the Cure which is a memoir that Elton released a few years ago. And if you are struggling with addiction, please reach out. Get help. Ask for help. Don’t try to do this alone.
- Relationship to father – https://www.smoothradio.com/artists/elton-john/dad-father-stanley-rocketman-actor/
- Relationship with mother – https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/05/rocketman-movie-elton-john-mom-sheila
- How accurate to film – https://mashable.com/article/rocketman-elton-john-analysis/
- EJAF – http://newyork.ejaf.org/ejaf-reaches-300-million-fundraising-milestone/