It should be fair to say that 2019’s Rocketman has been all but swept under the pop culture rug, for the most part, cursed since its opening weekend to live in the shadow of its multiple Oscar-winning counterparts Bohemian Rhapsody less than a year before it. Though what Bohemian Rhapsody had in massive ticket sales and a PG-13 rating, Rocketman excelled in how it told the same old musician biopic story we all know and love with a kind of storytelling broadway shows have been known for decades – using the lyrics of a song to progress the story.
It’s a simple concept that is by no means new – a character breaks into song and the dialogue they were just in the middle of is now effortlessly turned to the lyric. A dance number might ensue if you’re lucky. But the reason we’re here talking about Rocketman and not High School Musical is that in Rocketman, the lyrics of well-established, classic songs by Elton John, the man himself, are reformed into new meaning neither him nor his partner, Bernie Taupin, claim to have intended.
“Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone”
The movie’s titular song, and the one Elton is likely best known for, is, in his and Taupin‘s own words, a song about “astronauts in the future [whose profession] would become sort of an everyday job”, inspired by a science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury tells the story of an astronaut who goes out to space, and sulks in the loneliness of being away from his family for so long, and Taupin writes this same sentiment into his lyrics, and at the time of the song’s release, that was what it was.
In the 2019 film, however, “Rocket Man” starts playing at a point where Elton is at the peak of his fame – living lavishly in a Hollywood hills mansion and in the middle of a pool party you can only wish you had. His manager and lover, John Reid, continues to reject him romantically, yet finds great success financially. Not only that, but Elton watches scornfully as his beloved songwriting partner and best friend enjoy himself with attention from the attending girls, as well as his parents – the first people in his life to neglect him of love and attention when he needed it most – come in for a surprise visit at this very same mansion pool party.
Once you add a handful of pills and vodka to wash it all down, the table is set for quite the emotional tipping point for our down and out musical protagonist. Elton then steps up to the diving board, stops the whole party to announce that he’s going to kill himself, and leans face-first into the pool.
As soon as he does so, we enter with him this scene of otherworldly, underwater tranquility as he floats to the bottom. A place where he can truly, for at least the time being, be alone with himself. Or, at least, him and his younger self, as he finds young Elton at the bottom in full spacesuit playing the piano, singing the first few lyrics of the song.
The song is then passed on to present-day Elton as he sings, “I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife // It’s lonely out in space”, as if in response to his younger self. The choice for adult Elton to sing this part is crucial as it’s the first time in the movie he admits that his life of fame and money isn’t making him happy, as he feels more alienated from everyone else in his world than he’s ever had.
This same theme follows suit with pretty much the entire rest of the song in a near-perfect consistency – to the point that it’s almost eerie. Elton sings this broadway-style soliloquy, expressing his desire to reconnect with what really matters in life, and lamenting that his fame has distanced him from it all. Phrases like “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time // Till touch down brings me round again to find // I’m not the man they think I am at home” would have to either be a miracle or a spectacular coincidence or both that the same lyrics that were claimed to be simply adapted from a science-fiction story fit so perfectly with what is happening in Elton’s life at this point in the movie.
The point I’m here, humbly trying to make, is for you to look at the rest of the lyrics to “Rocket Man” or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, and see how they apply to Elton’s story as they appear in their respective points in the film. See how the same lyrics from the same beloved song are sung in the context of 2019’s Rocketman and how the filmmakers were able to interpret them into new meaning that may very well be, at some unconscious level Elton nor Bernie have yet to publicly admit, a chronicle of Elton’s very own life story intended from the very beginning.
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