by Alvin G. Burstein
This movie about Elton John dazzles, and raises provocative questions. The first of those is that of authorship. Is this a biography, or is it an autobiography? A biography is usually a straightforward historical account of its subject’s life told by someone else. It offers us a chance to evaluate the life, and to reflect on what constitutes a good one. It interests the reader who makes a judgment about whether the life was well lived, whether it was a good life. It has the authority of objectivity based on factual documentation.
An autobiography is authored by the subject. It has the authority of direct involvement. Though it may lack objectivity, it tells us the truth of what the narrator makes of his own life, and by implication, what he or she believes a good life to be.
So one would like to know what role Elton John, the Rocketman in the film, played in the construction of this movie. John himself is listed as an executive producer, and his husband, David Furnish, is listed among the producers. We can reasonably expect that the film conveys Elton John’s view of himself. We should view it autobiographically.
However, this autobiography is not cast in a traditional narrative mode. Rather than a straightforward historical account, it has been called a musical fantasy. Like any autobiography, it seeks to capture the truth of what Elton John makes of, or has made of, his life, but it does so in an unconventional way.
Rather than a conventional narrative, the film is a series of spectacles—perhaps a reflection of two of its subject’s salient features, his eyeware and his vocation as a musical showman.
In a way, the film is operatic, a collection of highly choreographed, coruscating song and dance extravaganzas interspersed with vivid, intensely dramatic episodes. It opens with Elton John in one of his extravagant glam rock outfits striding into a twelve-step therapy session, announcing that he knows the drill, giving his name and asserting his identity as a drug / and sex addict, an alcoholic, a bulimic and a homosexual.
What then unfolds is his life story as an unloved child, his father cold and his mother wayward, a musical prodigy from a working class family who evolved from pub musician to pop music idol earning millions. His life was one of extraordinary unbridled excesses that attempted to fill the void left by a lifelong lack of love. Ultimately, he comes to embrace his child self, and to forgive those who had failed him.
Basically, his autobiography portrays a struggle against social and economic disadvantage and self-abuse that battered and scarred its teller, but left him, in the words of his song, “Still standing.”
The film ends with an epilogue celebrating his thirty years of being ‘clean,’ of his life-long brotherhood with his lyricist, his devoted relationship with his husband and their two children, and his contribution to charitable causes, especially those of dealing with victims of AIDs and those who are socially disadvantaged.
There is a striking and curious omission in this autobiography. There is no allusion to Elton John’s knighthood. Born Reginald Dwight, he was dubbed Sir Elton Hercules John in 1998. The award acknowledged his charitable and musical contributions, but it also reflected his long association with the royal family. Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother were Elton John fans in the early 1970’s. In the early 1980’s, when he was playing for Prince Andrew’s twenty-first birthday party at Windsor Palace, he met Princess Diana. The couple danced a long Charleston together, and became close friends. When Diana died in an auto accident in 1997, Elton John rewrote Candle in the Wind, originally dedicated to Marilyn Monroe, as Goodbye England’s Rose, and played it at Diana’s funeral. There is a tenderness in this part of Elton John’s life that is missing from his autobiography.