ROCKETMAN TRAVELING AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT By Sandra Castillo
He is one of the most prolific, successful and venerated artists of all time, with a treasure of smash hits, millions of albums sold and mega-wealth obtained beyond one’s wildest imagination to his credit, but Elton John nearly paid the ultimate price for fame and fortune, when he attempted to take his own life just a few, short years after he made his U.S. debut at the Troubadour in West Hollywood in 1970.
In an article published in Ultimate Classic Rock, the moment that the nearly unfathomable happened, it was reported that the superstar was hosting a poolside gathering at his Benedict Canyon mansion in Los Angeles, attended by close friends and family members, when he announced, ‘I have taken 85 Valiums. I shall die within the hour,’ author Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote in “His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John.” Soon after he had made that chilling statement, he stood at the edge of his swimming pool, catapulted himself off the deep end and found himself drowning. His attempts to rise to the surface for air were futile, at best. With help from those who were present at his home that afternoon, along with the paramedics who had responded to the 911 call, John survived his brush with death and lived to tell about it.
In the movie directed by Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” revisits this harrowing scenario and the trajectory of a man who parlayed his musical genius into a career that has lasted for more than fifty years. From his early beginnings as a piano-playing child prodigy who enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in London to his meteoric rise as one of Rock’s best-selling artists of all time, John achieved international stardom soon after he made his L.A. debut at the Troubadour. When he first burst onto the scene and found out that it was possible to combine his propensity for classical music leanings with his flamboyant charm, John assuaged our inner Liberace, while injecting a robust dosage of Rock and Roll into the mix. Through the magic of 21st-century technology and a legacy that is as compelling, riveting as the artist himself, the audience is thrust into his dizzying orbit by way of a film that invites all who are willing to accompany him on this fantastic voyage.
In “Rocketman”, the arc of John’s backstory begins with his time spent in rehab, where he spills his guts to the counselor about his many addictions and dysfunctions-alcohol, drugs, sex, overspending, bulimia. From there, the viewers are introduced to key family members, friends, lovers and the woman he ended up marrying on Valentine’s Day in 1984 but would divorce four years later. John would, in the course of time, admit that marrying Renate Blauel, the German sound engineer who worked with him on the album Too Low For Zero, was selfish and an action that he would come to regret for causing her so much sadness, because, in reality, he used their marital union as a cover-up for his homosexuality that was still not widely accepted with many of his fans in the 1980s.
Out of all those who John had met along the way, there was one with whom he had connected and bonded, creatively and professionally, through music. Bernie Taupin, three years John’s junior, was a songwriter from Lincolnshire, England who had answered “an advertisement placed in the New Musical Express by Liberty Records” seeking singers and songwriters in 1967. John had also responded to the same ad, eager to find someone who could compose the lyrics he desperately needed to flesh out and fulfill his own piano-based melodies. Destiny would oversee this chance meeting and brought the two novices together, when John was handed an envelope stuffed with Taupin’s lyrical poetry. They went on to collaborate on some of the greatest music the world has ever known. From “Levon,” “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” “I’m Still Standing, “Your Song” and countless others, these evergreens provided the soundtrack for the lives of millions of people around the globe.
There are episodes of flash and grandeur in “Rocketman” that defy one’s expectations and the laws of gravity. From the spectacular stage costumes, headdresses and custom-made platforms that adorned the virtuoso in concert to the impressive choreography supporting such classics as “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” “Honky Cat” and “The Bitch Is Back,” one is witness to the pomp-and-pageantry of an incomparable talent that only comes along once every thousand years. The lead principle in “Rocketman,” actor Taron Egerton as Elton John, does an incredible job in capturing the essence of a man, who, despite his tremendous successes, experienced debilitating self-doubts and self-loathing throughout much of his life. Another telling revelation about John was his pursuit of love, which he could never seem to find in the first half of his existence. His crushing sense of isolation and loneliness drove him to self-medicate and fuel the (aforementioned) vices that caused so much collateral damage in the interim.
The raw truth about John, who had traveled light years away from his turn as Reginald Kenneth Dwight from Pinner, Middlesex, England, was that in his humanness, he was like so many of us, who are heavily flawed and broken. The miraculous thing is that he received the help he needed and finally found what he was searching for his entire life, when he met David Furnish in 1993, an established filmmaker and director from Ontario, Canada. It was Furnish who directed the 1997 documentary “Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras,” an eye-opening expose on the genius, complex nature of a musical icon. The two fell in love and were married in 2014, when same-sex marriage was legalized in Great Britain.
Now, as Elton Hercules John crisscrosses the planet on his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour,” set to wrap up sometime in 2021, as he permanently retires from the concert circuit, the singer is, once again, basking in the afterglow of a life that nearly derailed him, but was able to find redemption in the music that ultimately saved him from himself and gave the world a gift that just keeps on giving.
Thank you, Elton John.
Photo courtesy of Rocketman/Paramount Pictures 2019