How Elton John’s “Rocketman” Helped Me Process Trauma on the Big Screen
When I saw the trailer for Rocketman, I instantly knew I’d see the movie when it hit theaters. In the mid nineties, my mother and I would trek from our small village of Seville, Ohio into the “big city” of Medina to do grocery shopping. Our soundtrack, more often than not, was Elton John’s Greatest Hits, a 1992 CD with Elton’s top songs from 1970 to 1974. This early start meant that I have loved Elton John from the time I was very small and have continued being a fan throughout my life. So I was extremely excited to see his story on the big screen, especially considering that I hadn’t put much time into getting to know the man behind the music.
Here is the list of things I knew about Elton John before I saw Rocketman:
- Elton John is gay
- Elton John plays the piano
- Elton John wears costumes and big glasses and rhinestones
- Elton John is the MVP of Disney soundtracks, save for Phil Collins because Tarzan was 100% a gift
Rocketman had me hooked because of this parallel between my own story and that of an artist I had adored my whole life.
The opening scene of Rocketman follows Elton walking down a long hallway in full costume dressed as a sequin-adorned devil. He bursts through the door… into a group meeting at a rehab center. After some questions about his childhood, which he insists was very happy, we see flashbacks to Young Elton who was emotionally abused by both of his parents.
The first interaction between Elton and his mother was her chastising him, saying “You’re late and I’ve had to throw your dinner in the bin” (I’m paraphrasing). This smacks of the time my mother told my sister that if she wasn’t home by 5 she couldn’t come on a car ride to drop me off at dad’s for the weekend — we passed her walking home at 5:01 and she was running for the car and crying. Mom didn’t stop. Or the time my sister and I ate popsicles while putting away groceries only to have our mother deny us a promised trip to the movies because we hadn’t finished our chores before eating them.
Denied affection and love altogether by his father, and only conditionally loved by his mother, Elton John wanted nothing but to be loved as a child. Through the grace of one blood relative who cared, his grandmother, he was encouraged to take piano lessons and cultivate his love of music. Even as an adult, Elton was still searching for his father’s approval and his mother’s love.
Now’s where it starts getting a little freaky. Well, it’s not so freaky. But I, too, was emotionally abused as a child and adult by my parents. Conditional love and constant striving for attention and validation was the name of my childhood and young adult game. I only cut my parents out of my life at age 30. So right away, Rocketman had me hooked because of this parallel between my own story and that of an artist I had adored my whole life.
The juxtaposition of the upbeat song, the happy memories, and the truth of my emotionally abusive upbringing was overwhelming.
Elton ages on screen through a choreographed sequence of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” and this was the sequence in the film that first made me actually cry instead of just tear up. This song was my favorite to sing along with my mom in the car, and the juxtaposition of the upbeat song, the happy memories, and the truth of my emotionally abusive upbringing was overwhelming. Those memories of my mother are happy, and warm, and comforting. I loved listening to Elton John in the car with my mom. But my mother didn’t love me. And the grief of that was tangible while I watched this sequence in Rocketman.
Elton’s mother was watching him perform. But did she care? Was she proud? My mother came to my choir concerts. But did she care? Was she proud?
A name change
I opted to select a completely new name rather than keep my married name or revert to my birth name.
Born Reginald Dwight, Elton desired a bit of a name change for his musical career. He borrowed both names, Elton and John, from bandmates. While in Rocketman, he appears to take inspiration from a photo of John Lennon, a fact check indicates that was more of a cinematic liberty than true historical fact. Which is a bummer, because if Elton John had selected his surname based on a favorite celebrity, that would be one more thing we have in common.
As I left an abusive marriage and came to terms with my own abusive upbringing in childhood, I opted to select a completely new name rather than keep my married name or revert to my birth name. I chose Fisher, because without Carrie Fisher’s advocacy for mental health and medication, I likely would not have gone on the antidepressants that helped me see the abuse for what it was. Medication got me out of an abusive marriage. And Carrie got me on medication.
I’d never say that Elton John was an accident.
I was so happy to fact check and find out that Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin actually did meet through complete serendipity. Elton said he couldn’t write lyrics, so a studio exec handed him a sealed envelope from a stack of songwriting applications. Inside were Bernie’s words. The duo hit it off and have been working together ever since.
Here’s where this completely rocks my world: I have imposter syndrome. I feel like my writing career is a fluke. That my published book is a fluke. That an agent reaching out to me and a publishing company picking me up as an author are flukes. I’ve made jokes time and time again that Twitter got me a book deal and it was all a complete accident.
But I’d never say that Elton John was an accident. And this guy happened to get a random pile of lyrics from someone whose words were perfect.
You could say that it was by chance that Elton and Bernie met up and made music together. But the fact that Bernie writes good lyrics and Elton plays mad piano and can sing with such talent and conviction… that is not by chance.
Just like my writing is not by chance. I may have had some good luck, some good things happen, some serendipity in the modern age. But I’m not an accident.
My abuser spent years undermining my confidence in my own work because he so often took credit for turning me into the writer I was.
Speaking of careers and the people who help them along, let’s talk about Elton’s manager and first boyfriend, John Reid. Doing a bit of research about the couple, it didn’t happen exactly as portrayed in Rocketman. In the biopic, Reid seems much more cunning and out for power from the get-go, when in reality, the two were lovers who lived together before becoming professionally entwined. Additionally, Reid has even said that he wasn’t particularly enthused about being Elton John’s manager at first.
Over time, the couple broke up but Reid continued to manage Elton’s career and accounts until a falling out and a court case over financial issues. Reid also reportedly had a terrible temper and had a string of assaults, punching and slapping people when he was angry.
Across several moments in the movie, Reid’s obsessive control of Elton’s career was extremely triggering for me. My abuser took credit for my writing career because he introduced me to my first freelance client and therefore was the reason I was a professional writer.
But just as it’s no accident or fluke that I ended up published, it was no fluke that my writing was good enough to pay for. If I was a shit writer, that connection would have done no good. My abuser spent years undermining my confidence in my own work because he so often took credit for turning me into the writer I was.
Queer as hell
“You’ll never be loved properly.”
Elton John came out as bisexual in 1976 and married his wife Renate Blauel in 1984. The couple divorced in 1988 as Elton came to terms with his identity as a gay man, and he is happily married to David Furnish since becoming a couple in 2005.
In the movie, when Elton comes out to his mother, she responds, “You’ll never be loved properly.” I do not doubt that his mother said these words to him at some point, if not when he came out. The words of my parents in our final conversations are as clear in my mind as they were on the days they happened.
And they hurt.
“You’re a sweet girl. Fucked up in the head, but sweet,” were some of the words my dad said to me in our second to last meeting. “You’ll have to explain what you mean by abuse, because that’s a strong word and can tarnish a man’s reputation” were his words the last time I saw him in person.
The end credits roll in Rocketman with a photo of Elton and David and a caption that Elton is finally being loved properly. I will admit that I got a little teary-eyed.
I honestly don’t even know if my parents know I’m queer or not. I do know that they’ve both taught me about conditional love. My mom raised me telling me I’d never get a boyfriend if I ate like a pig, and she shamed my body at every opportunity. She had me on a diet by age 12 and is a huge factor in my decades-long battle with disordered eating. And I no longer care what she thinks of me, just like I hope Elton has long given up caring what his mother thought of him.
Healing the inner child
“When are you going to hug me?”
In an emotional finale, Elton hugs his inner child as a symbol of his healing now that he is in rehab. Earlier in the film, Young Elton asks his father, “When are you going to hug me?” but his father does not hug, touch, or hold Elton. In fact, Elton visits his father later in his life and sees his father holding and being physically affectionate with his new and improved sons in his new and improved family, which is such a moment of pure emotional pain from the film that it still affects me when I think about it.
At the movie’s close, the inner child appears in Elton’s mind and asks, “When are you going to hug me?” Cue me crying like a baby, because Elton drops to his knees and grabs the child version of himself in an embrace that is nothing but unconditional love.
Healing my inner child, as hokey as it sounds, has been a huge part of my trauma healing. In EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I target specific traumatic thoughts, such as “I am not allowed to rest,” and the therapy process allows me to associate memories with the thought. Memories attached to this target thought include my mother saying we were worthless for not cleaning, being punished with excessive chores, and generally not being allowed to sleep in or take a sick day from school when we didn’t feel well. If you had time to lean, you had time to clean. Removing the belief that I can only rest when everything productive has been finished has been a game changer for my mental and physical health.
Long story short
I bought some rhinestone-studded eyeglasses because we all deserve to be fabulous. Do something awesome today, and do something amazing for the child version of yourself.