Elton John Biopic vs True Story Review

written by Laura J.

Me by Elton John (2019)

Rocketman directed by Dexter Fletcher (2019)

Today I am comparing the Elton John biopic, Rocketman, with his memoir, Me. Both came out the same year, so it’s not like the movie is based specifically on this book but it still works since both are about his life.

Book Review

I love memoirs to begin with, but this memoir was amazing! It was ghostwritten by Alexis Petridis and admittedly I don’t know how that process works. I assume Petridis spends a lot of time with John and is able to capture his voice in the book, which means Elton John must have a great sense of humor because this book was hilarious! I will be sharing different quotes from the book throughout the episode that will give you a taste of his dry, witty humor.

It was also so well-articulated and he expressed himself so clearly.

I didn’t know much about him prior to reading this but I definitely have a new level of respect for him. I loved reading about his journey of self-discovery and self acceptance as well as his journey with sobriety.

I would highly, highly recommend this memoir!

Movie Review

I’ve been wanting to see this ever since it came out but kept putting it off for one reason or another. I wish I hadn’t waited so long because this movie was amazing! I was surprised that it is a musical, rather than the usual music biopic where the only music is when they are performing. Here, different songs from John’s discography are used in moments thought-out his life that perfectly fit the scene, even if the song hadn’t been originally written about those moments. For example, one of my favorite segments is when Bernie leaves Elton because his addictions are getting out of control and they sing Goodbye Yellow brick Road. This song wasn’t written during their split, yet it fit so well in that moment.

We also have a lot of choreographed dance segments which I also loved. Even though you learn about John’s life by watching this movie, it isn’t focused on the nitty gritty facts and even has aspects of magical realism. When he is performing at the Troubadour in LA, he and the audience begin floating which was such a cool way to show what it felt like to be there that night.

I of course have to say how great Taron Edgerton is in the role of Elton John! He does all of his own singing and he was incredible. Everyone was amazing, but of course the role of Elton was key.

The movie is rated r, but it was pretty tame for an r rating in my opinion. They say the f word a handful of times, but that aside I don’t see why it has the r rating. There is no nudity, although we do see him doing cocaine and maybe a serious drug like that, they wanted to limit the audience.

As with the memoir, I highly recommend this movie!

Going forward there will be spoilers for both book and movie! (if that can even apply to a biopic…)

Childhood

Elton John’s birth name is Reginald Dwight and he grew up in a home where his father was often away for the military but when he was home, John’s mom and dad were often arguing. Even if the father was away though, his mom was a scary person. “If she liked to scare people, she must have been overjoyed by me, because I was fucking terrified of her. I loved her – she was my mum – but I spent my childhood in a state of high alert, always trying to ensure that I never did anything that might set her off: if she was happy, I was happy, albeit temporarily.”’

Both parents had a temper, and John had a bad temper of his own as he grew up, “He would just explode. The Dwight Family Temper. It was the bane of my life as a kid, and it remained the bane of my life when it became apparent it was hereditary. Either I was genetically predisposed to losing my rag, or I  unconsciously learned by example. Whichever it was, it has proved a catastrophic pain in the arse for me and everyone around me for most of my adult life.”

His parents officially divorced when his mom met a man named Fred. He lived with his mom and Fred and Fred even got him a gig playing at the local pub and Fred would go around getting tips from people which he then gave to John.

He stayed in contact with his mom through the years despite it being a difficult relationship. Though later in life he did go seven years without speaking to her and she had no interest in meeting his two children.

His father he didn’t have much of a connection with. He was against John’s career and the only thing he shared was their love of football (soccer). John even bought a football team during his career and owning the team was one of the highlights of his life. Of his obsession with football he says, “It’s one addiction I’ve never shaken, because I’ve never wanted to, and it was hereditary, passed on to me by my dad.”

We see this family dynamic in the movie and what a lonely kid he was. We also see him playing at the pub and leaving through the window which John said he often had to do when a drunken fight broke out.

The movie also has a great scene where he goes to see his dad later when he is an adult, and his dad has a new family with sons he is a better father to than he had been to John. This is such a heartbreaking scene, which is followed by him calling his mom and telling her he is gay. In the movie and in real life she tells him that she has known that for a long time, but that he is choosing a life of loneliness.

His career

I actually won’t spend too much time talking about his career, but in both he is auditioning for a part with another group but doesn’t get it. The manager feels bad for him and gives him the envelope with some lyrics this guy has written along with the guys contact info. John can write music, but he struggles writing lyrics. The envelope contains the lyrics of Bernie Taupin and John immediately connects with the words. They meet up, and the rest is history. The become a song writing duo, lifelong best friends, they are roommates at various times, and they wrote a new song for the movie Rocketman which won an Oscar.

They originally try to sell the song they write, but eventually they record their own albums and they soon become a hit not only in the UK, but also in the USA, and before long, the world.

I loved seeing these up-and-coming scenes in the movie where he is backup for a soul group, and when he later meets Bernie and then preforms in America.

His sexuality and John Reid

Before they are famous, he was also engaged, which the movie also shows. The guy he plays backup for, who was gay, meets him for lunch and the guy says it’s ridiculous that he is getting married to a woman because he is gay.

He was a late bloomer and through his teenage years and early adulthood he wasn’t interested in sex. When this guy tells him he doesn’t love his fiancé and that he is gay, he concedes he doesn’t love her and feels trapped, but he doesn’t know whether or not he is gay.

He ends up breaking up with this woman and obviously does realize he is gay. When he is 23 he loses his virginity to John Reid, a music manager and they start dating. Reid was an aggressive person with a terrible temper and often hit people. He also slept around a lot, but John put up with it because he loved him. However, when Reid hits John is when he ends it with him. By this point Reid was his manager and he was actually a good manager (it seemed) and even though they no longer had a romantic relationship they continued their business relationship for decades.

In the movie, Reid is shown as the villain of the story and even though he wasn’t the best person, and John later found out he was taking money which caused John to nearly go bankrupt, up until that realization, they had a good working relationship most of the time.

His addictions

Early on while on tour Elton walks into a room and sees John Reid doing cocaine. He offers John some and he agrees. From there, despite it making him throw up the first time, he soon became a coke addict. When thinking about why he kept doing coke despite the bad side effects, he writes,  “So why didn’t I leave it at that? Partly because throwing up didn’t stop the coke affecting me, and I liked how it made me feel. That jolt of confidence and euphoria, the sense that I could suddenly open up, that I didn’t feel shy or intimidated, that I could talk to anybody. That was all bullshit, of course. I was full of energy, I was  inquisitive, I had a sense of humour and a thirst for knowledge: I didn’t need a drug to make me talk to people. If  anything, cocaine gave me too much confidence for my own good.”

I love how he writes why he liked the drug but follows it up with the truthful and empowering knowledge that he never actually needed it to be a “better version” of himself. In the book he struggles to love himself and here we see him realizing his worth and his value when sober and that his sober self truly is the best version of him. An important thing for any addict to realize! The drugs and alcohol do NOT make you better, you are your best when you are sober. He also says how once he quit, he couldn’t be around people doing coke not only to prevent himself being tempted, but because people on cocaine are “arseholes”, something he should have realized earlier.

There is also a funny segment about when he started using so heavily that he no longer waited till after the workday was over, “I had always tried to be strict about not using drugs in the studio, but this time, that rule went completely out of the window. The coke had precisely the impact on my creative judgement you might expect. I stuck any old crap on Leather Jackets (the name of the album)…There were old out-takes, songs that weren’t good enough for earlier albums but that, after a couple of lines, I suddenly recognized as lost masterpieces the public needed to hear as a matter of urgency.”

In book and movie, we see his drug and alcohol use getting out of control. In the book we hear about three suicide attempts (one of which happened when he was engaged to that woman earlier on). In the movie we see one, which happens when he is on the top of his career and LA has deemed it “Elton John week”. He flies his mom and nan in to celebrate and he has a show at Dodger stadium.

The night before the show, he takes a bunch of pills, then announces he is going to kill himself and jumps in the pool.

He says that with these attempts he didn’t actually want to die but was doing it as a cry for help. It would have seemed everything was going great, and most people in his life did think everything was great. But inside he was depressed and lonely but didn’t know how to express that he needed help.

In both, after this suicide attempt, he still goes out and performs a great show the next day.

The movie by the way, starts with him going to an addiction recovery meeting and most of the story is framed in the narrative of him telling these people his life story and I really loved how they did that.

Getting sober

In the movie, he voluntarily checks himself in to a rehab and gets clean. In real life, he was dating a guy named Hugh who was also drinking and doing drugs. Hugh tells Elton that he is going to go to rehab and John is furious. Partly, because if Hugh is saying he has a problem, that implies that John also has a problem and Elton refused to admit he was an addict.

He goes to see Hugh at the rehab though and while there admits he needs help and it able to find a rehab that will treat his drug addiction, alcoholism, sex addiction and bulimia all at the same time.

It is common for addicts to write a letter breaking things off with their addiction, and I loved the letter Elton writes. Here is a section of it,

“When I first met you, you seemed to bring out everything that had been suppressed before. I could talk about anything I wanted for the first time in my life. There was something in your make-up that brought all my walls and barriers crashing down. You made me feel free. I was never jealous if other people shared you. In fact, I liked turning other people on to your charms. I realize how stupid I must have been, because you never really cared for me. It was all one-sided. You only care about how many people you can trap in your web…We had great parties with people. We had great, intense talks about how we were going to change the world. Of course, we never did, but boy, could we talk! …All I cared about was myself and you. So I kept you to myself. In the end, I didn’t want to share you anymore. I  just wanted us to be alone. I became more miserable, because you ruled my life…”

He also says that “Being honest was hard, but it was freeing. You got rid of all the baggage that came with lying: the embarrassment, the shame.”

When he and Hugh are out of rehab they wanted to move in together and the book reads, “they(the rehab people) kept telling us that it wouldn’t work, that the dynamic of the relationship would change irrevocably now that we were sober. We both dismissed that as nonsense… So we rented an apartment, moved in together and discovered to our immense surprise that the dynamic of our relationship appeared to have changed irrevocably now that we were sober, and it wasn’t working out.”

The first few years of sobriety he goes to a ton of AA meetings, one month he went 100 times! However, after a while he decided to stop going saying he “got to a point where [he] didn’t want to talk about alcohol or cocaine or bulimia every day”. I can relate to this, because as a Alanon member, that beginning time those meetings were crucial. But then once recovery for myself and the alcoholic in my life was going better, I didn’t like the meetings as much because alcohol and addiction was no longer such a looming presence in my life and I didn’t want to go and dredge up old feelings that I felt I had moved passed. Having said that, maybe I should have tried a different meeting that was better suited to people in my position. Like a meeting with others that had been in the program for a while.

But anyway, decades later his husband gets sober he starts attending meetings again with him and loved going back.

The movie ends when he gets sober-there is a great moment when he confides to Bernie, he is worried he won’t be as good musically without the drugs and booze to which Bernie says that what he is actually scared of is feeling things. But the movie ends with a recreation of the “I’m Still Standing” music video which is a very fitting song to end the movie with.

I wish it would have shown more of his life after getting sober, rather than ending right when that happens. For example, the movie doesn’t get into the AIDS crisis at all and the people he knew who died and his later charity work. It is mentioned in the end credits though. But his character arc has more definition with it ending in his sobriety I suppose.

Relationship and friendships

I’m jumping back in time here, but after dating John Reid he has various boyfriends through the years but they never stick and are always dysfunctional. He also sweeps them up and pays for the person to tour with him and always be there. Then eventually he gets bored and has someone breakup with the person for him.

At one point, he meets a woman who works for the recording studio and they have great chemistry. He starts thinking maybe there is something there between them. The book reads,” What if a relationship with a woman could make me happy in a way that relationships with men had thus far failed to do? What if the fact that I enjoyed Renate’s company so much wasn’t a kind of affectionate bond between two lonely people a long way from home, but a sudden and unexpected stirring of heterosexual desire? What if I’d only spent the last fourteen years sleeping with men because I hadn’t found the right woman yet?  And what if I now had? The more I thought about it, the more I thought that it was true. It was a tricky line of  argument that didn’t really hold up to close scrutiny, or indeed any scrutiny whatsoever. But tricky as it was, it was easier than facing up to the real problem.”

They get married and it lasts for four years. In the book he tells us that he and Renate agreed to not talk publicly about their marriage and each have kept that promise and so he doesn’t get into the details. Only saying she was a wonderful person and he is sorry for the whole thing. He was also still doing drugs and drinking while with her. The movie shows this as well.

By the way, he is close friends with Rod Stewart and the marriage was very sudden so he couldn’t attend the wedding. But a telegram was sent which said, “You may still be standing, dear. But the rest of us are on the f—ing floor.”

Once he is sober and older, he meets a man named David and the two of them get married, and eventually have two sons through a surrogate.

In the book he talks a lot about his friendships with various people, including a lot of celebrities and I really enjoyed hearing about these people and his relationship with them. Including Rod Stewart, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, and Princess Diana. He also tells some funny and/or interesting stories of meeting Brian Wilson, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, and others.

The Lion King

I can’t end this without sharing a quote about when he was writing the music for The Lion King.

“… there were days when I’d find myself sat at the piano, thinking long and hard about the path my career  seemed to be taking. You know, I wrote ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’. I wrote ‘Sorry Seems To Be The  Hardest Word’. I wrote ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’. And there was no getting around the fact that I was now writing a song about a warthog that farted a lot. Admittedly, I thought it was a pretty good song about a warthog who farted a lot…Still, it felt a long way from…Bob Dylan stopping us on the stairs and complimenting Bernie on ‘My Father’s Gun’. But I decided that something about the sheer ridiculousness of the situation appealed to me, and carried on.”

I don’t need to tell you that The Lion King movie and soundtrack were both gigantic hits!

Book vs Movie

This is tough to choose which wins because I love both so much. The book gives you more details of course and is factually accurate. But the movie is so entertaining and heartfelt, while also having the benefit of experiencing his music. You don’t learn nearly as much from the movie as you do from the book, and the movie as said, isn’t always factual. But each one executes perfectly what they are. Admittedly, I would have loved if the movie was another 30 minutes longer. But even if it were, it still couldn’t fit everything from the book. Both are so vulnerable and tell an amazing story, and they do so perfectly in their different mediums. I think this might be a Why the book Wins first, where I say it is a tie and I simply can’t choose!