Seeing Rocketman this week recalled what most struck middle-school me about Elton John, master of styles. There were other piano men moving onto my Memphis radio dial in the early 1970s: Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, my keyboard genius Keith Emerson. (Carole King was the piano woman.) But they wrote their own lyrics, or their lyricists were in the band. Honky Château was the second album I bought, and the first that gave rockstar treatment to a standalone lyricist. Who was this Bernie Taupin who appeared in the portraits on the cover art and in the album booklets? He wasn’t sounding the songs on my turntable, and he wasn’t onstage when I saw Elton John in 1973. Yet he was always there in the music. A mute prime mover. A Muse.
Like most rock biopics, Rocketman focuses on the usual kinds of volatile relationships:
with parents, with managers, with lovers. At the epicenter is the star’s tortured relationship with himself. And the still center of this turbulent world is Taupin, who accepts his collaborator exactly as he is. Elton’s lyricist doesn’t fit into the film’s therapeutic framework because their relationship is the only one that doesn’t need fixing.
In the movie scene where Elton John meets Bernie Taupin, their initial words tumble out together. Then as they talk in turn, the piano man tells his lyricist that he could see all the notes when he read the words that Taupin didn’t intend to reveal: It’s like my fingers couldn’t work fast enough to keep up with my brain. The film’s portrayal of their collaboration and friendship is not a love story, and it is not a buddy movie. When the action happens–the film’s music performances–these rocketmen are in their separate spaces.
The glitz and glam of Rocketman would have us believe that only Elton was the flashy one. But that’s misreading the performer’s stage costumes and Bernie’s streetwear as emblems of their personalities. Look at the lyrics on those 1970s albums. Some of Bernie’s riotous lines seem to erupt from Alice in Wonderland. Why anyone would yearn to go hunting the horny-back toad was beyond me. Years later, I did meet a cat named Hercules. I still haven’t found lyrics quite as zany as “Solar Prestige a Gammon.” The movie’s interplay of music and plot can uncannily make the songs seem to be about Elton John’s life. But what they they really manifest is a rare synaptic synchronicity between a writer’s sense of Time and a musician’s sense of timing.
I have formed friendships through creative collaboration, and I have deepened friendships through collaboration. These are the sparks that ignite our engines. These are relationships that lift us.
Rocketman (2019, Dir. Dexter Fletcher)
MB’s LP collection