Fact-checking Rocketman: Elton John's real life versus movie fiction
In this edition of "we Googled it so you don't have to" comes Rocketman, the movie that will renew both your appreciation for feathers and your confusion over who Bennie is and why he needs all those Jets. The Elton John biopic, starring Taron Egerton and Richard Madden, maps the rock star's life from childhood (his first days playing the piano and taking lessons at the Royal Academy of Music) to the height of his fame.
It's also an ode to John's wholly unique stage presence and style, which becomes apparent in fantastical scenes that play it fast and loose with the word "reality." It's clear (or it should be) that certain moments were re-imagined by director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall to serve both the film's narrative and their creative vision. Elton John never sang a duet with his younger self nor did he blast off into space as the final bars of "Rocket Man" played over Dodger Stadium.
But the rest of the plot does leave room for a few post-viewing Alexa conversations—which is where Entertainment Weekly comes in.
Were Elton John’s songs written in the order they seem to be in the movie?
Rocketman is a musical in every sense of the word, so rather than following the traditional biopic format (writing the plot of the movie and then placing in the songs as they were created) it places the songs as they move the plot forward. "The Bitch Is Back" made sense for an early scene in which John reflects on his childhood while in rehab, and "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting" fit the narrative of young Reggie's struggles better than it did in the scenes from the early '70s when the song was actually written.
Is “Bennie and the Jets” about drugs?
In short, no one really knows what "Bennie and the Jets" means. Most of the apparent connections between an exact moment in John's life and an exact song's meaning were concocted by Fletcher and the rest of the creative team.
"We take the songs in our movie and use them to tell the story," Egerton explained during a visit to Jimmy Kimmel Live! "So 'Bennie and the Jets,' in our film, is all about excess and darkness and anger and frustration."
Is Elton John’s stage name inspired by John Lennon?
Elton John—known formally as Sir Elton Hercules John CBE—was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight. In Rocketman, he's shown borrowing the name "Elton" from a bandmate he was traveling with at the time and "John" off the cuff after seeing a photo of the Beatles. By all accounts, the latter was simply a cheeky cinematic moment—another of his fellow Bluesology members from that same time period was named Long John Baldry. We can all take an educated guess about the real story.
Can Elton play a song just by listening to it?
Apparently so! (We're impressed, but not surprised.) According to John's bio on his official website, his musical genius was apparent even earlier than it is in the film: "At the age of 3 he astonished his family by sitting at the piano and playing 'The Skater's Waltz' by ear," it reads.
Was Elton’s mom that mean?
In a word? Yes. Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the late Sheila Dwight, had her own questions about the harsh moments that play out on screen between mother and son.
"At first when I read it, I kind of thought Oh, you're vilifying her. What's the full story?" she explained to EW. "And the more people I've talked to—people separate from production, who would be objective—the more I was like, there is something really wrong."
Howard spoke to a lot of people (in confidence) who had known Dwight for decades and also consulted an expert opinion in an attempt to find empathy with a character who tells her own son that he's a burden.
"At one point I called one of my friends who's a psychiatrist," she continued. "And I was like, 'Can I just talk to you about this personality because there are so many contradictions and I almost can't believe what I'm hearing,'" she said. "And he said, 'Yeah, that sounds like some narcissism.' I'm not a doctor so I can't diagnose anyone, but you know."
Did Elton and Bernie Taupin hit it off immediately?
In Rocketman the longtime musical partners' relationship seems to be purely kismet—and while the real-life version relies on quite a lot of coincidence, it's more akin to a set-up. Ray Williams of Liberty Records placed an ad in the magazine the New Musical Express, looking for talent. Both Taupin and John (then Dwight) responded. Williams noticed that they complemented each other quite well, and launched their collaboration.
Did Elton walk out of a Madison Square Garden show to go straight to rehab?
Most of the plot that revolves around John's drug use is true but rearranged, narratively speaking. John really did have a drug problem, and he really did overdose (although it happened in 1975, not when it appears in the film). He also overcame his substance abuse issues, but (spoiler alert!) it didn't happen quite like in Rocketman.
"The last two weeks of my use of cocaine I spent in a room in London," John told NPR in 2012. "Using it and not coming out for two weeks and it completely shut me down." He went on to explain to NPR's Steve Inskeep that he decided to stop using cocaine after the death of his friend, Ryan White. White was an Indiana teen who was banned from going to school after contracting AIDS. John befriended him and his family as they fought for public acceptance of Ryan's diagnosis.
Did the crowd levitate during “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour show?
Define levitate. If anyone stayed for the post-credit scenes, in which real-life images of John are juxtaposed with the Rocketman versions, you'll see that a concert photographer caught John practically horizontal at the piano. In an op-ed that John wrote in The Guardian, he said he may as well have been flying.
"There's a moment in Rocketman when I'm playing onstage in the Troubadour club in LA and everything in the room starts levitating, me included," he wrote. "And honestly, that's what it felt like."