How Elton John rocketed back to pop’s A-list
With Rocketman burning up the box office, and his farewell dates a sell-out, Elton John has undergone the mother of reinventions, writes Ed Power
It’s a little bit funny how Elton John has bounded back to become one of the most acclaimed pop stars of the era.
As he brings his sold-out farewell tour to Dublin on Wednesday night for the first of two dates, he does so as a living icon. He’s also, not uncoincidentally, ripping it up at the box office, where quasi-official biopic Rocketman looks set to outperform Bohemian Rhapsody (Taron Egerton is already being tipped for an Oscar for his portrayal of Elton during his lost years as glamtastic fame casualty).
That’s quite a turnaround. Twenty years ago, Elton John was perceived as naff-on-a-stick. While his soundtrack work for Disney (The Lion King etc) was hugely successful (and incredibly lucrative), his critical stock had hit the floor. Were one of your friends to have admitted to enjoying a bit o’ Elton, you’d probably do a double-take and step back. Nobody was going public with their admiration for the guy who warbled Circle of Liiiiiiiife.
But that’s all in the past. And where peers such as Sting continued to be stalked by old indiscretions — he’ll never get past the lutes and the tantric yoga — Elton, at age 72, is an artist reborn.
That’s in part due to the shifting tides of fashion. Consider, for instance, how little hype there is ahead of the return of Fleetwood Mac to Dublin on Thursday. Five years ago they were every indie hipsters’ non-ironic ’70s soft poppers of choice. Today… not so much.
Elton, by contrast, has travelled in the opposite direction. We no longer hold it against him that he appeared in the video to Circle of Life wearing a suit whiter than a thousand suns exploding at once.
Added to that, a new generation has rediscovered the Bowie-adjacent pop he was releasing, seemingly effortlessly, through the ’70s and early ’80s.
This, to be sure, isn’t just down to the shifting sands of public taste. Elton has across the past decade been quite considered about cultivating his legacy. He’s gone back to his roots with albums that emphasise song-writing over pop dazzle.
On the farewell tour, meanwhile, the ’90s gloop is completely glossed over. As are the lesser hits he and his lyricist foil Bernie Taupin knocked out in the late ’80s — stuff like Nikita, in which he tried to end the Cold War by driving around East Berlin in an open-top car, and the 1988 US number two I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.
With the clunkers placed to one side, the singer has made it possible for the true gems in his repertoire to glimmer as never before. At the European opening night of the tour in Vienna, it was, for instance, striking just how much consensus there was between fans and singer that John’s glory days were in the ’70s.
That was the period that dominated the set as, installed behind a piano that occasionally — and a bit spookily — moved across the stage, he bashed out Crocodile Rock and Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.
And of course he sang Rocket Man, the cosmic ballad from which the new movie takes its name.
This brings us the other key component in his present prominence. As the film pinpoints, Elton John started out the underdog’s underdog. Where peers such as Bowie and Freddie Mercury were natural-born rock stars, Elton was anything but.
Rocketman emphasises how he grew up in the same boring suburbs as the rest of us. Never statuesque, he didn’t look much like a rock god either. Nobody mistook the artist born Reg Dwight as a superstar in the wings.
Perhaps that’s why the singer was so moved by the film, of which he and his husband David Furnish are producers. He broke down in tears when it premièred at the Cannes Film Festival.
“He was watching some pretty turbulent bits of his life,” Egerton said after Elton had broken down in tears at the première. “The movie doesn’t pull its punches in that respect.
“But I think it was tears of joy. That was the overriding feeling. I think he really loves the movie. He went as far as to say that he wouldn’t change a thing out it.”
“I wasn’t prepared for the power of what I was seeing,” Elton would write in the Guardian. “The whole experience of watching someone else pretend to be you on screen, of seeing things you remember happening again in front of your eyes, is a very weird, disconcerting one, like having an incredibly vivid dream.”
Granted, it’s hard to feel much of an affinity today with an artist worth an estimated $500 million and whose farewell tour is on course to gross in excess of $400 million.
Still, he came from nowhere and starting out was not a natural in the spotlight.
That, indeed, is one of the reasons for his flamboyant costumes from back in the day. As he says in the film, the punters don’t pay to see Reg Dwight. They’re here for Elton John.
This brings us to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the show he brings to Dublin today. He has paired the songs with affecting videos — miniature movies, really — that variously hark back to his childhood and his early years as a striving unknown.
As he sings, the screens will flash images of working class English people on holidays at the seaside and of fans displaying their Elton memorabilia.
Reg Dwight is long gone. Elton is now a pop star of imaginable wealth — and one capable of more than the occasional strop, if past documentaries are any clue.
But amid the glitz, he still holds onto where he comes from. Perhaps it’s that grain (and it is merely a grain) of humility amid the glitter that has contributed to his rehabilitation. Or maybe we just like the music.