I have a confession to make. I wrote about the Elton John film Rocket Man before having seen it. Back in August I was stating, ‘if you want to see a movie that conveys the musical impact of Elton John, you would be better off watching the bus scene in Almost Famous than digesting Rocket Man’.
I’ve now seen Rocket Man. For me it is a game of two halves. I like the coverage of the pre-fame years, particularly the scenes of Elton John as a boy in suburban Pinner. When he becomes famous, though, the film becomes dull. It’s not that stardom or drug addiction are inherently boring, it’s more that this film doesn’t really capture their highs, lows and weirdnesses. Interviewed by Graham Norton this week, Elton John had far more engaging things to say about the megalomania and depravity of rock stars, as well as about the oddities of fame. In particular, I enjoyed the story about introducing his partner, David Furnish, to his mother for the first time, only to have Michael Jackson turn up and come along to the dinner date as well.
And what of the music? I think my hunch was right. Almost Famous is the more effective film when it comes to illustrating Elton John’s brilliance. There is one scene in Rocket Man that cuts through musically, however. It depicts the composition of ‘Your Song’. What I liked about this scene is its relationship with ‘truth’. It could be considered false in relation to music making, but true in terms of illustrating what it feels like to write a break-through hit. You capture lightning in a bottle.
It takes place at Elton John’s childhood home, where he has returned to live with his mother and stepfather, bringing his lyricist partner, Bernie Taupin, along with him. Taupin hands John the lyrics to ‘Your Song’. John goes to the piano and writes the tune in real time. This brought to my mind Oliver Stone’s film, The Doors, in which the band similarly create their breakthrough hit, ‘Light My Fire’, in a spontaneous jam session.
Looking at the scene in The Doors again, the guitarist Robbie Krieger has scribbled down the chords and lyrics to ‘Light My Fire’ beforehand, and there is some tinkering around by the keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, before he stumbles across the Bach-inspired introduction to the song. The fully realized version that follows takes place in a different context: it soundtracks a montage sequence in which we witness the band’s escalating fame. In contrast, in the film Rocket Man, Elton John finds the tune to ‘Your Song’ immediately.
Why then does the naturalistic setting in The Doors feel corny, while the theatrical scene in Rocket Man rings true? Part of it comes down to this staging: naturalism can sabotage itself if the detail is not perfect. Melodrama, on the other hand, can capture a truth to feeling without having to concern itself with historical accuracy.
Another reason is that The Doors scene surely is false. ‘Light My Fire’ may well have emerged from the scribbled notes, been worked up in rehearsal, and had a quickly realised intro because, in Manzarek’s words, ‘It just came out of, you know, fifteen or twenty years of music practice’. Yet there is still the feeling that the whole process would have taken longer than this.
Elton John, on the other hand, really does take the words of Taupin and create fully-realized songs off the bat. ‘I put my hands on the keyboard and away we go’, as John stated to Norton this week. As one example, he composed the music for the double album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, in three days. Lest we forget, this is an album that includes ‘Candle in the Wind’, ‘Bennie and the Jets’, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ as well as the title track. ‘Your Song’ was written just as quickly. John talked with Norton about its staging in Rocket Man. For him, the film gives ‘a pretty accurate description of how it was done’.
Even though it is ‘true’, this remains a remarkable means of creating successful music. Other composers, in contrast, can toil for months. I’m not sure how widely known it is that John writes in this way. Yet my guess is, even amongst viewers who do not know about this process, the ‘Your Song’ sequence would still appear honest. Could it be that there something in the music that is letting us know?