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Book Review: “Me” (by Elton John)

Anyone who knows me even passingly well knows that I absolutely love the music of Elton John. Though I’d always heard his music growing up, it wasn’t until I was in college that I truly discovered how much I really enjoyed his music. In the years since, I’ve seen him in concert four times (and hopefully going to make it to a fifth). I’ve always eagerly awaited an official autobiography and now, at last, it’s here.

In Me (could there be a more Elton John title?), we finally get the complete story of his tumultuous life from his own perspective. We witness the dizzying heights of his success, as well as the nadirs of his life, including his plunge into a cocaine addiction that takes over for much of the ’70s and ’80s, until he enters rehab in the 1990s. John is not shy about delving into the ugly details of these addictions, and his bracing honesty is refreshing and at times unsettling. I can’t imagine that it was easy for him to delve into these ugly parts of his personal history, but somehow he manages to make it utterly believable and endearing. Through this narrative, we come to learn what really makes Elton John tick, through both the good and the bad.

But we also get a window into the personal relationships that have shaped his life. We meet John Reid, his first lover and the man who was a key part of his business success (and, ultimately, some of his failure). Elton isn’t shy about telling us how much he loved Reid, and I very much enjoyed his frankness about his sexuality. We also meet Elton’s parents, a study in contrasts, his mother a woman of many emotions and a love of music, his father a stiff-upper-lip type who never seems to understand his son or his desires. I’ve long known that his relationship with his mother was difficult, but here we get a stronger sense of just how long that conflict went on. One can’t help but feel a great deal of pity for both of these people, neither of whom really seemed to understand one another. As someone whose relationship with his own mother has been at times strained, I found these parts of Elton’s story to be particularly moving.

And, of course, we also encounter Bernie Taupin, Elton’s long-time lyricist with whom he has written some of his most enduringly popular songs. These were honestly some of my favorite parts of the book, since one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed most about Elton’s music is the lyrics to his songs. At one point, John compares Bernie to Tolkien, and that seems a pretty accurate description of the types of lyrics that Taupin has always managed to produce. It’s clear that, though they’ve had their times of conflict, John and Taupin are truly one of the greatest musical duos to have graced rock-and-roll.

And, finally, we meet his husband David Furnish and their two children, both of them born from the same surrogate. Reading these sections of the book, it’s striking how much being a father has really begun to change John’s life and his perspective on it for the better. Anyone who might have had doubts about whether a 60-something-year-old man can be a father should have their doubts assuaged by this book.

Interspersed with the biographical elements of the book are insights into the music. Elton shines a light into the motivations behind so many of his most popular songs, as well as what went into both the good and the bad albums (let us never forget that Elton once recorded a disco album). However, I have to point out that, while Elton and Bernie both seem to think that The Big Picture is one of the worst albums that they’ve ever made, I always found it quite enjoyable.

Me also highlights the many important people that Elton has encountered throughout his life, ranging from the Queen herself to almost every famous or fashionable person you can imagine. Sometimes, you just have to marvel how quickly Elton John managed to rocket into the upper echelons of superstardom, and reading Me one gets the feeling that it’s precisely the precipitousness that in part led to some of his worst troubles. By the time you finish reading Me, however, you can’t help but be happy for Elton.

What I found particularly refreshing about this book was the fact that Elton is just so forthright about his own flaws. He makes no bones about the fact that he has a fearsome temper and is prone to outbursts that, to many, look more than a little ridiculous. He also recognizes that he has a bit of an acid tongue that has, needless to say, gotten him into some hot water more than once (his spats with George Michael, Madonna, and Billy Joel are well-known). Despite his flaws, however, one gets the feeling that, despite his waspishness and his temper, that deep down he really is a good person trying to do the best that he can, and that he loves fiercely, deeply, and indelibly.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that it’s too short! There were many times when I found myself wanting to hear more about the writing process and, even more, about the meanings that he saw in the music that they created. Maybe at some point there’ll be a sequel? There just seems so much more that we could learn about his music, so let’s hope so!

All in all, Me is a fascinating and unflinching glimpse into Elton’s life and psyche. To my mind, it is nothing short of miraculous that Elton has somehow emerged from all of the chaos seemingly stronger than ever. I continue to marvel at his powerful longevity. Aside from everything else, Me is exceedingly well-written, a pleasure to read from the first page to the last. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the life of this fascinating musical figure.

Queer Classics: “Rocketman” (2019)

After watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I had reservations about going to see Rocketman. While I like Queen’s music, I don’t have the same investment in either them or Freddie Mercury as I do Elton John. I’ve been a diehard Elton fan for decades, and he’s one of the few artists that I have made an effort to see in concert as many times as I can. So, given how thoroughly meh Bohemian turned out to be (how a film about Queen can be so lacking in energy is truly strange), I went in to Rocketman with somewhat low expectations.

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. Rocketman was everything I wanted and more.

The film begins with Elton John entering a rehabilitation facility. He then narrates his childhood and adolescence, his union with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his tumultuous affair with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), his heights of glory and the pits of despair.

As with any successful film, casting is everything, and Taren Egerton is an absolute gem in this film. Somehow, through the magic of makeup and his own style, he comes to embody Elton in a way that is, sometimes, truly startling. And, unlike in Bohemian Rhapsody, where Rami Malek was not doing much of the actual singing, here Egerton actually shows off his singing chops. Though he doesn’t have quite the high tenor (nor the falsetto) that was such a hallmark of Elton’s earlier career, he is a very fine singer in his own right, and he does manage to capture some of Elton’s stranger enunciations. There were times that I had begun to think that I was actually watching Elton himself, and if Egerton isn’t at least nominated for an Academy Award for this there is no justice in the world.

It is, in other words, Egerton’s film, though Jamie Bell also deserves honorable mention for his fine turn as Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin, and Richard Madden has a fine villainous (and sexy) turn as Elton’s manager/lover John Reid. Everyone else in the film is quite serviceable, though there’s not a great deal of subtlety in Bryce Dallas Howard’s characterization as Elton’s mother, even if she does the best with what the story gives her. Gemma Jones, however, is warm and lovely as Elton’s grandmother, and while she’s not onscreen very long, she makes it clear that she is one of the few sources of genuine stability and love in his life.

Rocketman doesn’t shy away from painting its subject in a very unflattering light. Indeed, as my friend remarked, it’s a little surprising how scathing it is in its depiction of Elton’s lower points, particularly his cruelty toward those in his life who really do seem to care for him. What’s more, it shows us just how far Elton had sunk into a pit of self-loathing by the time that he finally sought our rehabilitation, and how much the heights of success was matched by a depth of despair. This despair, of course, is made all the more wrenching because of Elton’s being forced to live so much of his life in the closet (at least, unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman emphasizes the importance of this fact, including showing a very steamy sex scene between Elton and John Reid).

For all of its darkness, however, Rocketman has many moments of the utopian joy that one frequently associates with the musical genre. I was particularly struck by the choreography and cinematography of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” which catches up you in Egerton’s enthusiastic performance and the myriad bodies moving with joy through his vocals. Indeed, the film makes it clear that Elton is truly one of those people for whom musical ability is truly a gift, and the many musical numbers, even the ones that occur at his darker moments, are exquisite listening.

Just as importantly, Rocketman highlights how important Elton’s relationship with Bernie Taupin was and remains, even after all of these years. There’s a certain irony about Elton’s oft-repeated claim that the two of them have never had an argument, as it seems that the only reason this is true is because Taupin refuses to engage with Elton’s vicious diatribes. I truly enjoyed seeing Jamie Bell in the role, as I often feel that he doesn’t get enough appreciation as an actor. There is an undeniable chemistry between Egerton and Bell that emerges at numerous points in the film, and it is clear that, for Elton at least, the affection was at first more than brotherly. As the years progress, their relationship deepens and matures, until they are at last brothers in all but blood, and their last scene together is immensely touching.

It’s a little bit funny, but it’s quite astonishing how easily many of Elton’s numbers fit so seamlessly into the narrative that the film constructs (even if their date of composition doesn’t necessarily line up with the film’s chronology). There’s a certain irony about this, however, for the film doesn’t actually use any of the songs from John’s and Taupin’s autobiographical album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. I suspect this is because so many of them are explicitly about his life with Bernie, and it might have felt a bit trite to have song and narrative line up so neatly. However, I was a little sad not to hear Egerton perform “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (though I was pleased to see the film make use of some of Elton’s deeper cuts).

All in all, I really enjoyed Rocketman. I consider myself an Elton John fan, and to see his early life brought to such astounding life on screen is uniquely pleasurable. One gets the impression that, for Elton at least, this was a deeply personal film, and while I don’t know just how much input he had in its creation, it feels as if Rocketman comes from the heart. Full of emotion, good storytelling, and infectious music, Rocketman is a moving testament to the extraordinary life of one of the greatest musicians of all time.