The True Story Behind the Movie Rocketman

14 minute read

Rocketman, a musical film about Elton John that arrives in theaters on Friday, looks a lot like a biopic: It traces John’s life from a shy child in London through his stratospheric rise and addiction-fueled lows. But its creative team has repeatedly rejected the label: “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic. It isn’t,” Taron Egerton, who plays John, told Collider last year. “It’s a fantasy musical so it’s actually his songs used to express important beats in his life at emotional moments.”

But while many liberties are taken with factual details, the overall arc of the movie accurately captures John’s emotional and musical journey, according to the man himself. “It’s obviously not all true, but it’s the truth,” the 72-year-old musician, who is an executive producer for the movie, wrote in an essay for the Guardian this week.

Here are the movie’s truths and fictions, from the way it portrays John’s relationships to its depiction of his musical genius.

Is the chronology of Rocketman accurate?

Rocketman plays fast and loose with the timeline of John’s life, with songs appearing out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes. “Some of the elements and scenes in the film, of course they’re not going to be exactly as they happened,” Bernie Taupin, John’s songwriting partner and lyricist, who’s played by Jamie Bell in the movie, told TIME in an interview. “If we’d stretched it out, it would have taken up too much time.”

So the film kicks off with a childhood flashback in which a young John sings “The Bitch Is Back,” which wasn’t recorded until 1974. At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a song from 1983.

When John forms a bond with his soon-to-be wife, Renate Blauel, they duet to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” in the studio. But while that song was released in 1974, the pair didn’t meet until the ’80s.

All of the film’s events lead up to an AA meeting that John attends instead of playing a Madison Square Garden show; he checks into rehab shortly thereafter. But while John did cancel an MSG show in 1984, it wasn’t until six years later that he went to rehab following the death of Ryan White—a teenager whose story of contracting AIDS through a blood transfusion sparked a national dialogue about the disease.

Was Elton John’s relationship with his family truthfully portrayed?

Rocketman portrays several of the relationships in John’s life as complicated, beginning with his parents. His father Stanley Dwight (played by Steven Mackintosh) served as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force and was often away on military duty. As in the film, Stanley was rather stern, and once sent a letter from overseas warning that a young John should pursue a career at a bank and must “get all this pop nonsense out of his head, otherwise he’s going to turn into a wild boy,” John’s mother, Sheila, told TIME for a 1975 cover story.

Several biographies of John back up the film’s depiction of his parents’ relationship as an unhappy one, and they divorced when John was 13. Two years later, John and Sheila (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) moved into a new flat with John’s stepfather, a local painter named Fred Farebrother (Tom Bennett). While in the film, scenes between John and Sheila are fiery and argumentative, John has not often spoken publicly about their relationship. The pair famously did not speak for eight years beginning in 2008, but they reconciled around the time of her 90th birthday in 2016, two years before she passed away.

Despite the rocky relations, John’s family was responsible for his early musical inclinations. John told Rolling Stone that his first interest in music stemmed from his parents’ extensive record collection, which is shown as a central part of family life in the early part of the film. “The first records I ever heard were Kay Starr and Billy May and Tennessee Ernie Ford…I grew up in that era,” John said. “I was three or four when I first started listening to records like that.”

In the film, John’s grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) is portrayed as a stable influence in his life, encouraging his musical endeavors and supporting his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. It seems this was a faithful depiction; in 2018, John partnered with popular British department store, John Lewis, for a widely viewed annual Christmas advertisement, calling it an opportunity to reflect on “how first playing my Grandmother’s piano marks the moment when music first came into my life.” TIME also reported that Sheila backed her son’s forays into pop music and allowed a teenage John to take up a job playing piano at a nearby pub. “If he would continue studying classics at the academy, she would permit him to spend as much free time as he wanted practicing the pops,” TIME reported in 1975.

time elton john cover
TIME's cover for July 7, 1975.

Read TIME’s 1975 cover story about Elton John in the TIME Vault.

How did Reginald Kenneth Dwight become Elton John?

As depicted in the film, the beginnings of John’s career in the mid-1960s were spent as part of a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K. In one scene, a young John appears cramped in the back of a van with his bandmates, reading a newspaper. Looking up, he says, “I’m thinking of changing my name to Elton.” “But that’s my name,” his bandmate replies. “Yeah, I know,” John says casually.

In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1973, John said that really was the genesis of his stage name, and it happened on the way back from a gig in Scotland with former bandmates Elton Dean and John Baldry. “I said, I’ve got to think of a name,” John told Rolling Stone. “I’m fed up with Reg Dwight, I can’t be Reg Dwight. If I’m going to be a singer, I’ve got to think of a name. So Elton Dean’s name I pinched, and John Baldry’s name and I said, oh, Elton John, there you go.”

The scene in the movie in which the name “John” comes to him while looking at a photograph of John Lennon and the Beatles appears to have been added for narrative flair.

How pivotal was John’s show at the Troubadour?

John’s first U.S. performance at this Los Angeles club was as legendary and transformative as the film depicts. In 1970, John’s self-titled second album was floundering on the charts; he had yet to cross over to the states in any meaningful way.

On August 25, the little-known John took the Troubadour stage—reluctantly, as he suffered from stage fright, as the movie depicts—following an introduction from Neil Diamond. His performances, which included “Your Song,” “Border Song” and a cover of the Beatles’ “Get Back,” electrified the crowd of 300 people, who roared after he knocked down his piano bench and did a handstand on the piano. “The sound of the audience was the sound of a star being born,” T-Bone Burnett, who was at the show, told the L.A. Times this year.

John played six nights at the Troubadour to a slew of stars, from Quincy Jones to David Crosby to Linda Ronstadt. Word-of-mouth, plus a rapturous L.A. Times review written by Robert Hilburn, generated a frenzy around the British newcomer. (“Rejoice. Rock music, which has been going through a rather uneventful period lately, has a new star,” Hilburn wrote). “Your Song” would reach the top ten on the US Billboard Hot 100 later that year.

While the film captures the delirious spirit of the night, it takes liberties with some details. John did not play “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour—that song hadn’t been written yet, and wasn’t released until two years later. And while Rocketman places his future manager and lover John Reid at the show, Reid first saw John in performance a week later, according to a 1974 interview.

Was John’s relationship with his manager John Reid as turbulent as the movie suggests?

In the film, a youthful John embarks on a whirlwind relationship with Reid, played by Richard Madden. John recently wrote that he had been confused about his sexuality for most of his pre-fame years, and that the sex scene in Rocketman was as it really happened, when John lost his virginity to Reid at the age of 23 in San Francisco. The budding star and the smartly-dressed Scotsman did have a tumultuous five-year relationship in the 1970s. Some reports note that they physically fought on occasion, as depicted in the film when Reid slaps John in the street outside London’s Royal Albert Hall. Reid did serve three weeks in jail in 1974 for punching a journalist in New Zealand, but it’s not clear whether or not the specific on-screen altercation between him and John actually happened.

Reid acted as John’s manager for more than 25 years before the singer ended his management agreement in May 1998. During his time as a manager, Reid also worked with Queen; his character is played by Madden’s Game of Thrones castmate Aiden Gillen in the film Bohemian Rhapsody. While Reid and John part ways in Rocketman on less than good terms, the reality was perhaps even more acrimonious. After discovering that £20 million ($25.2 million) was missing from his accounts, John accused Reid of betrayal, “swindling” him and “having his fingers in the till,” in a court case in 2000 which the singer eventually lost.

“It’s not my place to villainize characters. At the same time, there’s a great deal of truth in that portrayal,” Bernie Taupin tells TIME, speaking of Rocketman‘s depiction of Reid. “All I can say is, John Reid should be happy that someone as good-looking as Richard Madden got to play him.”

Did John have relationships with women?

While John is proudly gay, he did have at least two significant relationships with women. The first came at the beginning of his career, when he and Taupin were struggling songwriters in London. He met Linda Woodrow, who now goes by Linda Hannon, after a gig in Sheffield; the two began a relationship and soon were engaged. The affair was either placid or tempestuous, depending on who you ask. In an interview this year, Hannon said that “the relationship was going smooth” before John called it off abruptly after two years.

But in a 1973 interview, John had only disparaging things to say about her. “It was a very stormy six months, after which I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” he said. “She was six-foot and she used to beat me up.” The relationship is documented in John’s song “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” in which he describes himself as a “pawn outplayed by a dominating queen.”

In Rocketman, Hannon is replaced by a character named Arabella, with whom John enters into a casual affair despite doubts about his sexuality. Arabella is the ill-tempered landlady of John and Taupin’s apartment, perhaps a sly reference to their 1973 song “Social Disease”: “My landlady lives in a caravan/ Well, that is when she isn’t in my arms/ And it seems I pay the rent in human kindness/ But my liquor also helps to grease her palms.”

A decade later, John met the German sound engineer Renate Blauel while recording the 1983 album Too Low For Zero. Blauel became part of John’s inner circle during a bleak moment in his life, and they married in Australia months later. “I simply want to be a family man,” he told People in 1986. “I’ve no regrets about giving up my bachelorhood.” But the pair divorced after four years of marriage. In 2017, John wrote in an Instagram post: “I wanted more than anything to be a good husband, but I denied who I really was, which caused my wife sadness, and caused me huge guilt and regret.”

Could John actually write songs in a matter of minutes?

An early scene in Rocketman shows Taupin giving lyrics to John and then going upstairs to brush his teeth. By the time Taupin has rinsed and returned, John has all but finished writing “Your Song,” the pair’s first big breakout hit.

This lightning speed is barely an exaggeration. “It’s pretty much how it happened,” Taupin told TIME. “I remember his mother, in her very sort of dictatorial way, going, ‘that’s a good one!’”

John is renowned for working at a breakneck pace: “I get bored if it takes more than 40 minutes,” he told the New York Times in 2013 about songwriting. In the same interview, he said that Taupin’s imagery immediately unlocked melodies in his mind in a “twilight-zonish” way.

But Taupin’s words weren’t the only ones that could immediately summon melodies. John has turned his songwriting speed into a parlor trick, even creating a song to an oven manual on the spot during a 1997 performance.

Did he struggle with bulimia and addiction?

Rocketman opens with John entering rehab in characteristically flamboyant fashion. It’s a scene to which the film often returns as the singer reflects on the ups and the downs of his life. The audience learns that John is bulimic, and has become reliant on alcohol, drugs and sex. According to the singer himself, this is true. John recently wrote that some film studios “wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so [Rocketman] would get a PG-13 rating. But I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life.” He also says there were moments in the film “where I’m completely disgusting and awful, but then, at my worst, I was disgusting and awful.” Towards the end of the film, Taupin visits John in rehab, a scene that did happen in real life.

And as for the shopping—a TIME correspondent got a first-hand look when he accompanied John on a shopping spree in central London as part of the magazine’s cover package on the singer in July 1975. The reporter notes that “for Elton, money long ago became as abstract as grain futures,” referring to recent acquisitions including an $80,000 yacht, a $2,300 raccoon coat and a Rembrandt artwork. In 2000, it was revealed that John spent almost £40 million ($50.6 million) over 20 months between 1996 and 1997. However, since 1990, John has been sober and is one of the U.K.’s most charitable donors, giving millions away in philanthropy to causes supporting HIV/AIDS programs and his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music.

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