‘Rocketman’: Fact-Checking the Elton John Biopic
Historical accuracy isn’t the point of the fantasy musical, but there are still numerous spots the creators veered from the facts
The new Elton John movie Rocketman never pretends to be a traditional biopic. It’s a fantasy musical told from the perspective of a burned-out, drug-addled Elton reflecting on his wild life from a rehab facility in the early 1990s. Characters frequently burst into elaborately choreographed song and dance routines, songs are played long before he wrote them, the timeline is off much of the time and facts are disregarded in favor of creating a compelling narrative and capturing the emotional truth of Elton’s life.
“What I care about is capturing moments cinematically and musically,” Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher told Rolling Stone. “I have to take artistic license, which is what Elton said I should do. He’s a creative, artistic person and that’s the way we approached it.”
With all that in mind, fact-checking the movie may seem like an unfair exercise. But a lot of people are going to see it with only a passing knowledge of Elton’s life and will emerge from the theater curious as to what was real and what was fictionalized. So here’s a very incomplete list of moments from the movie that aren’t quite historically accurate.
1. Bernie Taupin didn’t write the “Border Song” lyrics in 1967
In real life and the movie, Liberty Records executive Ray Williams introduced John to his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. But the movie shows Williams passing along Taupin’s lyrics to “Border Song” before the two even met. That song wouldn’t would be created for another two years. You do briefly see a manuscript for “A Dandelion Dies in the Wind,” which is indeed a tune from 1967.
2. Elton didn’t take his last name from John Lennon
As the movie shows, the man born Reginald Kenneth Dwight took the first part of his stage name from from his Bluesology bandmate Elton Dean. But the “John” didn’t come from John Lennon. It came from Long John Baldry, a mainstay of the 1960s London rock scene that was one of his earliest mentors and also the man that discovered Rod Stewart.
3. Elton didn’t audition for Dick James by playing “Daniel” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”
Ray Williams was impressed by Elton John from the very beginning, but his boss Dick James was much more skeptical. In Rocketman, Elton tries to impress him by playing bits of “Daniel” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.” But this is 1967 and those songs wouldn’t be written until 1972 and 1983.
4. “Crocodile Rock” wasn’t played at Elton’s U.S. debut at the Troubadour
The most crucial evening of Elton John’s career took place on August 25th, 1970, when he made his American debut at the Troubadour and blew the audience away. Rocketman recreates the evening in great detail, but they show him singing “Crocodile Rock” when he and Taupin were two years away from writing it. (We could also be insanely nitpicky and point out the show was on a Tuesday and not a Monday as the movie says.)
5. Neil Young didn’t play the Troubadour a week before Elton
When Elton first shows up at the Troubadour and is surprised by how small it is, owner Doug Weston tells him that Neil Young played two weeks earlier and packed the place. Young had just wrapped up a CSNY tour at the time and was playing far larger venues than the Troubadour with them. He last played the Troubadour well over a year prior to Elton’s U.S. debut and hasn’t done a show there since.
6. John didn’t meet his band that night
Movie Elton was very nervous when Dick James told him he had booked shows at the Troubadour because he didn’t even have a backing band yet. Ray Williams says he’ll take care of that and Elton meets the musicians when he first arrives at the venue. In real life, Elton had been gigging with drummer Nigel Olson and bassist Dee Murray all over England since April 1970, four months before they went to Los Angeles.
7. He didn’t have a guitar player in 1970
Elton played the Troubadour baked only by Murray and Olsson. There are no tapes of that night, but you can hear what they sounded like on the incredible live album 11/17/70. They wouldn’t be joined by a guitarist until Davey Johnstone until 1972. Murray died in 1992, but Olsson and Johnstone are still in his touring band 49 years later.
8. John Reid didn’t enter his life that night
In the movie, Elton and Bernie go to a party at Mama Cass’ house after the Troubadour. Bernie walks off and leaves Elton alone, but then a Scottish man comes up and introduces himself as music manager John Reid. This is a major moment since Reid would become Elton’s lover for a few years and his manager until 1998. But they didn’t meet that night. It actually took place at a Motown Christmas party later that year.
9. 1971 to 1990 isn’t some amorphous blob of time
After this breakthrough at the Troubadour, the timeline of movie Elton’s life gets very hard to follow. We see a quick montage of newspaper headlines and gold records before it’s suddenly 1976 and he’s recording “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with Kiki Dee. But then a bit later, it’s 1975 and he’s playing Dodger Stadium and then it’s 1979 and recording Victim of Love dressed in a sequined hat that was his signature look 10 years later. It’s all pretty jolting, but then again this is Elton remembering his life from a rehab facility years in the future, so it’s understandable his memory would work like this.
10. He didn’t marry Renate Blauel until 1984
The movie shows him recording the Victim of Love title track in 1979 and falling for sound engineer Renate Blauel as they sing “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me” together. He’s so desperate for a genuine human connection at this point that he marries her even though he’s gay and the marriage is doomed to failure. They cut right from the studio to their wedding, but that didn’t happen until 1984.
11. He didn’t have an extended split with Bernie Taupin
The movie says that John and Taupin “never had an argument” shortly before showing them have quite a few little spats. At the end of a particularly bitter one, Bernie storms off while singing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” It’s implied they worked apart for years. There was indeed a period in the late Seventies where Elton worked with Gary Osborne and other lyricists, but it just lasted a couple of albums and the duo have worked together almost exclusively since the early Eighties.
12. “I’m Still Standing” was written years before he went to rehab
The movie ends with him kicking drugs and alcohol in rehab and writing “I’m Still Standing” in a jubilant moment where he recognizes he can still create great music while sober. But the song came out in 1983 and he finished rehab in 1990.
Once again, none of these things really matter and if you want the strict truth about Elton John’s life, there are plenty of books and documentaries that get into it. (May we humbly recommend Tantrums and Tiaras and Elton John: Me, Myself and I.) They won’t have Elton coming into rehab dressed as a giant red devil or singing “Rocket Man” at the bottom of a swimming pool as a duet with his childhood self. They also won’t be quite as outlandishly fun as Rocketman.