Rocketman: Elton John, Superman, and the Costumes we wear

Warning: Spoilers!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!

One of my favorite scenes from Tarantino’s films is towards the end of Kill Bill vol. 2 (2004), not long before our avenger Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) and Bill (David Carradine) square off in a final death match. Beatrix has a theory about herself, that she’s not really a killer and that she needed to get their child away from that kind of life. Bill has a different theory, and it’s a particularly clever one that I hadn’t heard of before. He compares her to Superman, and he uses that comparison to explain that she’s not who she thinks she is. Here’s the video, but I’ll quote it at length below:

Bill: [ . . . ] a staple of the superhero mythology is there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego: Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S,” that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kent’s found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit–that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us.

And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak; he’s unsure of himself; he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race. Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plympton?

Kiddo: Ahh so, the point emerges.

Bill: You would’ve worn the costume of Arlene Plympton, but you were born Beatrix Kiddo. And every morning when you woke up, you’d still be Beatrix Kiddo.

Oh, you can take the needle out

Kiddo: Are you calling me a superhero?

Bill: I’m calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be.

I have always been fascinated with this bit of dialogue. It’s such a clever interpretation of Superman, and it’s one that I don’t think I had thought of before seeing Kill Bill vol. 2. The idea that the costume we put on for people is really our actual identity, rather than an artificial persona, is really quite fascinating. There’s also the T.S. Eliot approach to issues of identity and persona; he implies that our lives are filled with creating different personas for different contexts, audiences, and rhetorical situations: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Though even that line implies that when we’re not meeting others, there’s no pretense, that there’s a real self. Perhaps, there is no single real self. Maybe we’re always a persona, a layer of an onion that’s not really there. Or maybe we’re not?

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It’s a line of questioning that I thought of when watching the film Rocketman (2019), a dramatic bio-pic musical about the life and career of Elton John. These questions surrounding identity, persona, and costume comprise a key thematic layer of the film. The story addresses how costumes and identity are key to Elton’s musical career and his own sense of self off-stage. At multiple points in the film, it’s clear that the prodigious piano man sees himself similarly to how Bill see Beatrix: as someone for whom the costume is revelation of who he really is–or at least, who he insists on becoming.

The early part of the film focuses on the musician’s childhood, growing up in a family with a distant mother and an apathetic, emotionally stunted father. It was in these years that Elton was known as Reginald (Reggie) Dwight (Matthew Illesley plays him as a child and Kit Conner as an adolescent). Growing up in a middle-class family, Reggie’s family had a piano and some nice things, but the idea of having access to elite education was incredibly unlikely. But his mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones) notice his uncanny ability to play songs after hearing them, so Reggie is signed up for piano lessons. From there, his talent turns to skill, and he has his first big break, attending an elite London Musical academy. As his talent builds, his knack for entertaining is discovered in bars, which leads to his participation in a small time band, which in turn leads him to tour as part of a back-up band. We definitely get a sense of his career taking off like . . . a rocket.

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Reggie seems to be accelerating into adulthood and musical maturity, but he’s struggling with his next step. How does he become a rock star? How does he go from being a “fat boy with glasses from Pinner” to being a “soul man”? This seems to be the trip wire that he can’t get past. But then he talks with Wilson (Jason Pennycooke), an American musician who gives Reggie a bit of advice that transforms him in at least two ways: from local musician to international pop star and from young Reginald into a new persona, an international rock star with a never-ending supply of baroque Las Vegas carnival-esque costumes. In one of the film’s many montages, there comes a key conversation between these two characters:

Wilson: I’m a skinny, black, kid from Detroit who’s real name is Rodney Jones. And I played roadside joints for ten years before I realised what I had to do.

Reggie: What? Change your name?

Wilson: Not just your name. You have to kill the person you’re born to be in order to become the person you want to be.

Wilson’s telling Reggie that he needs to kill who he is. Or as Bill from Kill Bill vol. 2 might say, Reggie needs to realize that the costume version of him is the real version, and the seemingly real version of himself is the costume version. Got it? Basically, Reggie needs to invent an on stage persona and let that become his reality. In the next couple scenes, Reg starts thinking about changing his name, and he finally settles on Elton John–the first name borrowed from a band mate and the second name inspired by a chance glance at a picture of The Beatles.  And that’s how a little kid from Pinner named Reggie became Elton Hercules John (played in adulthood by Taron Egerton).

But Elton’s metamorphosis into his Rock star identity doesn’t come without a lot of internal conflict. Throughout the film, we see this emergent star struggling to determine who he really is. Remember, Wilson didn’t just say change your name; he said, kill the old you. That’s harder, Elton realizes, than he first thought.

Perhaps the first example of this internal conflict comes when Elton meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a songwriter who will soon become his longtime friend and creative partner. Right after he coins his new name he meets Bernie in a coffee shop, and they quickly feel a professional and personal connection to each other. Within moments they’re singing “Streets of Laredo,” and it becomes a sort of duet between them. (Btw, even though this is one of the more mellow and marginal musical moments of the film, it’s one of the most narratively consequential. There’s a world of emotion, connection, and character development in this scene and that song.)

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This scene at the coffee shop causes Elton to trip over his two identities. When they exchange names, Elton gives Bernie his stage name, then–as if he feels dishonest saying that–admits that’s not really who he is. And then, just moments later, after telling him that he’ll eventually give him his real name when they get to know each other, he lets Bernie know his name is Reg. It’s as if Elton is struggling with who he is, and what makes it even more complicated is that Bernie represents how there’s no clear dividing line between the personal and professional for Elton.

Can Elton be two people at once? Does he want to be? How does his new identity draw him closer or further apart from others, such as Bernie? These are all questions our protagonist has to wrestle with, and what makes this struggle even more complicated is his simultaneous fear of isolation. This fear stems from memories of his emotionally withdrawn parents.

So, here we have a mercurial young man who’s wrestling with issues of identity, intimacy, and ambition all at once. These identity and intimacy travails are compounded by Elton’s evolving sense of his own sexual identity. Elton is gay, but his public identity as such might hurt his career, damage his friendships, and complicate his familial relationships. So, putting all this together, the soon-to-be rock star is dealing with a fun house mirror of reflections on who he is, who he wants to be, and how others perceive him. It’s complicated for Elton!

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These moments keep appearing over and over in the film, with Bernie often tied up with them. In a later scene, as Elton is walking on stage, he’s struggling with the fact that he just came out to his mother (who was emotionally withdrawn about the whole thing). Meanwhile, his lover, John Reid (Richard Madden) just assaulted him and is cheating on him, and he’s using drugs to get through it all. Bernie comes up to him, and the following dialogue takes place:

Bernie: You ok?

Elton: I’ve got the number one album in America, again! I’m about to embark on the highest grossing tour in rock history. I’m personally responsible for 5% of all record sales on the entire planet and I have the highest platform heels known to man. Of course I’m OK.

Bernie: It used to be only the two of us. Now there is bus loads of people just to do the music. Don’t you ever want to go out and sing without all this paraphernalia? You know, be yourself?

Elton: Why the fuck would I want to do that? If you were a real friend you wouldn’t say that shit. People don’t pay to see Reg Dwight. They pay to see Elton John! Don’t ever tell me how to do my job.

Bernie sees Elton as fleeing himself, and Elton sees his costumes as a way to become himself. But these costumes and his performances are also a way to flee his personal problems. So who is he really? Is he Elton, or is he Reg? Or both? Or is the answer to the riddle of his identity something else entirely?

What this film does especially well is tease us with these questions of identity. What it doesn’t do so well is to grapple with them with enough detail or substance for us to really engage with them in terms of theme or character development. Another weakness of the film compounds this problem, and that is that the story reads as a hagiography of Sir Elton John. After watching this film, I didn’t really get the sense of any of the man’s faults, other than his generally self-destructive behavior. Even when he is being accused of being self-indulgent by his manager and former lover, Reid, the focus is more on Reid’s abusiveness, greed, and scheming than Elton’s narcissism. I mean, maybe Elton John really is just that wonderful; or maybe this film didn’t explore his character sufficiently to make it a fully compelling biography.

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In this sense, the film reminded me of Yankee Doodle Dandy, a film about the life and career of George M. Cohan (1878-1942). I mean, in a lot of ways, that really is the best film that I can think of to compare Rocketman too; a rip roaring, exciting thrill ride that deals with some powerful themes but treats its main character with kid gloves, so much so, that the film suffers for it. Or, it at least becomes something less than (or different) from the dramatic exploration it could have been. I’ll leave you with one final observation, that Elton John actually dresses a Superman in one scene, a costume Tarantino’s Bill would have likely found significant.

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