In this exclusive article, Elton John writes about his extraordinary life and why he finally decided to give the Rocketman biopic the green light.
I was in the cinema for about 15 minutes before I started crying. Not crying as in the occasional tear quietly trickling down my cheek: really sobbing, in that loud, unguarded, emotionally destroyed way that makes people turn around and look at you with alarmed expressions. I was watching my family – my mum and dad, my nan – in my nan’s old council house in Pinner Hill Road in the late 1950s, singing I Want Love, a song Bernie Taupin and I had written in 2001.
I knew it was in the film, but I didn’t know how they were going to use it. Up until that point, I’d kept a discrete distance from the actual process of making a movie about my life. I gave some suggestions, saw a few daily rushes, said yay or nay to some important decisions and met two or three times with Taron Egerton, who plays me. But otherwise I’d kept well away from Rocketman, letting my husband David [Furnish] be my eyes and ears on set every day. I figured it would be uncomfortable for everyone to have the person the film was about lurking around.
So I wasn’t prepared for the power of what I was seeing. I Want Love is a song Bernie wrote, I think, about himself: a middle-aged man with a few divorces, wondering if he’s ever going to fall in love again. But it fitted life in Pinner Hill Road perfectly. I suppose my mum and dad must have been in love once, but there wasn’t much sign they ever had been by the time I came along. They gave every impression of hating each other. My dad was strict and remote and had a terrible temper; my mum was argumentative and prone to dark moods. When they were together, all I can remember are icy silences or screaming rows. The rows were usually about me, how I was being brought up.
My dad was in the RAF so he was away from home a lot, and when he got back, he tried to impose new rules about everything: how I ate, how I dressed. That would set Mum off. I got the feeling they were staying together because of me, which just made things more miserable.
The best way to escape it was to shut myself in my bedroom with my record collection and my comics, and drift off into an imaginary world, fantasising that I was Little Richard or Ray Charles or Jerry Lee Lewis. I made my peace with it all years ago. They divorced when I was 13, both remarried, which I was happy about, although my relationship with both of them was always tricky. I was closer to Mum than Dad, but there were long periods when we didn’t speak. And my childhood is one thing I’m still sensitive about.
Even if I hadn’t been, 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. And the story of how I ended up in a cinema, crying my eyes out at the sight of my family 60 years ago, is a long and convoluted one. And it begins, naturally enough, with a naked transgender woman with sparks flying out of her vagina.
The trans woman was Amanda Lepore, a model, singer and performance artist. She had sparks flying out of her vagina because she was starring in one of a series of films by David LaChapelle I’d commissioned for my show in Las Vegas, The Red Piano in 2004. That was his interpretation of the lyrics of Someone Saved My Life Tonight, a song Bernie and I had written about our pre-fame years, living in a flat in north London with a woman I’d foolishly got engaged to when I was still very confused about my sexuality.
An actor was dressed as me in full 70s stage outfit sticking his head in a gas oven, homoerotic angels figure-skating with giant teddy bears and Amanda Lepore, naked, in an electric chair, with sparks flying out of her vagina. I loved it: I’d said all along I didn’t want a standard Vegas show, and no one was ever going to be able to call The Red Piano that.