When I was a little girl, one of my favorite songs was “Your Song.” At the time I didn’t know the singer’s name and I certainly didn’t know he was gay. I just knew how his music made me feel, the feel of the large, black knobs on my father’s cassette player and the sun burning an orange line along my arm from resting on the inside of his truck window in July. I also didn’t know Elton John dressed up as the Queen of England, or that he snorted cocaine. But I knew crocodiles danced to rock and roll in my father’s garage radio. It is not uncommon for a biography to humanize its subject or to characterize them as a victim. But “Rocketman” was able to humanize its subject without victimizing him.
Singer-songwriter and gay icon Elton John performing his hit song "Rocketman." Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Elton John starts out as shy, overweight Reginald Dwight and like the little girl listening to her dad’s cassette player, like everyone, he just wants to know his parents love him. Like Elton John, Reginald was destined to stand out, and as the movie continues so does his personal journey. The movie begins with Elton sitting in rehab, wearing a bedazzled orange costume with matching sunglasses and devil horns. “Right, then!” he says. “I know how this goes. My name is Elton John. And I’m an alcoholic. And a cocaine addict. And a sex addict. And a bulimic! I’m also a shopaholic who has problems with weed, prescription drugs and anger management.”
Reginald is a shy, talented boy, attending a large musical school with a full paid scholarship. Unfortunately, he lacks any positive attention from either of his parents, relying on his grandmother to support his ambitions. Like most children, he does not discuss his sexuality with his parents and he certainly does not discuss deviating from the norm. The boy approaches his cold father, staring up at him, as he asks, “When are you going to hug me?” Surely, the movie seems to say, the eccentric, gay, pop star Elton John could never be Reginald Dwight. Reginald develops his stage presence while playing as a pianist for an African American jazz group. “I think I’m going to change my name to Elton,” he tells one of his friends.
The movie continues with a glittering combination of song, dance, and flawless acting of the cast, including Taron Egerton as Elton John. However, if viewers look past the glitz and glamour, it’s clear Elton is struggling. He tries to be the shy, seemingly straight Reginald Dwight, but he can’t. He no longer knows he is, and the only real answers he has are more frightening than anything else he has encountered. The movie hits several personal notes for members of the LGBT community. For me, it was watching Elton be forced to come out to his mother and his fear of her rejection. Coming out is a personal, often scary experience and the absence of this choice only further damages Elton John. Just as they did when he was a child, Elton’s parents reject him and refuse to hug or comfort him. Without their love and acceptance, he continues to spiral into addiction and depression. As drugs and money pour into his mansion, he loses all sense of himself, and nearly dies on multiple occasions. Elton strongly reflects the experience of LGBT members as he attempts to come to terms with his family’s rejection of his sexuality and his own self-loathing.
“Rocketman” refuses to be another cliché movie about a gay character whose only character arc is existing to suffer. Once Elton John confronts his management and takes a step back from Hollywood; he goes to rehab. It is only there he confronts his problems, and he acknowledges the abuse of his childhood. The name Elton John isn’t a mask he hides behinds, it’s who he is. As he discusses his childhood, a younger version of Elton John steps forward, back when he was just a boy, when he was just Reginald Dwight. “When are you going to hug me?” the boy asks. Elton looks at the boy and, unlike his father, he kneels and gives him a hug. Elton John shows us the true power of self-love while reaching out to the entire community. Several recent movies have discussed queer men, and “Rocketman” is a glorious addition. “Love, Simon” said we were strong, “Bohemian Rhapsody” said we were here, and “Rocketman” said we’re not going anywhere.