It’s hard to believe there’s never been a true Elton John movie before Rocketman. Since starting his career as a club musician and staff songwriter in London in the late 1960s, the man born Reginald Dwight has fashioned himself as a classic Hollywood character. Between the flashy clothes, the sometimes scandalous personal life, the big hits on major motion-picture soundtracks, and his songs about movies (penned with his most frequent collaborator, lyricist Bernie Taupin), Elton has maintained a unique relationship with cinema and showbiz history, across 50 years.
What follows is a brief survey of some of the major moments when Elton John the pop star and Elton John the film buff overlapped—either through songs he’s written about movies, or songs he’s written for movies, or even just moments when the man himself or his music was featured in a movie. Television is excluded here, so don’t expect to see the WKRP In Cincinnati episode about the Soviet defector who loves “Tiny Dancer,” or the episode of The Muppet Show where Elton sings “Crocodile Rock.”
Actually, you know what? How about a brief taste of the Muppets appearance:
Now, with that out of the way, let’s go to the movies with Sir Elton John.
Elton’s third studio LP was Taupin’s and his attempt to make their own American Western movie, in record album form. Influenced by both classic country and blues musicians and the mythopoetic Americana of The Band, Tumbleweed Connection features sprawling, cinematic songs with titles like “Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun” and “Burn Down The Mission,” which reference the violence underlying American history. About a decade ago, playwright Christopher Kahn turned the album into a stage musical for an Arroyo Grande playhouse. Now how about bringing that to the big screen?
Before John and Taupin broke through in the U.S. with the 1970 album Elton John (the one with “Your Song” and “Take Me To The Pilot”), they were songwriters stuck doing work for hire, chasing lucrative gigs. That’s how they ended up writing and recording (with Paul Buckmaster) the soundtrack for veteran British director Lewis Gilbert’s teen romance Friends, a job they took before they became famous. Frankly, their dreamy, sophisticated music is too good for this corny, cutesy movie, which emerged from the era when older filmmakers were struggling to keep up with world cinema’s youth movement. But Friends is still notable for being Elton John’s first film score. His next would come a long 23 years later.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Elton John’s most popular record is this ambitious double album, filled with songs of farewell, many of them aimed fairly directly at Hollywood image makers, such as “Candle In The Wind,” about the posthumous idolization of Marilyn Monroe, and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which rejects film fantasy. The hits from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road were massive, tapping into the Watergate-era skepticism toward saccharine platitudes. Even the cover art had an impact. Comedian Joel Hodgson has often credited the illustration accompanying the lyrics for “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” for giving him the idea to stick silhouetted figures in front of old movies, in his Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The habit of putting preexisting modern pop hits onto film soundtracks became more prevalent in the ’70s, with many music supervisors scrambling to license songs from the hottest stars in the Top 40. Writer-director Floyd Mutrux made perhaps the best use of Elton John in Aloha, Bobby And Rose, a romantic road picture featuring a near wall-to-wall succession of the era’s radio faves—including four from John. Critic Charles Taylor describes the effect of that music best in his book Opening Wednesday At A Theater Or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema Of The American ’70s:
It takes only a few minutes of screen time to go from “Begin the Beguine” to “Bennie and the Jets,” from ’40s glamour to ’70s glam, from romantic reverie to the slurred decadent smirk of the Prodigal Son triumphant. Great DJs tell a story by matching moods, rhythms, by allowing the feel of one record to bleed into the next. In that segue from Artie Shaw to Elton John, from low lights to glittery low life, the writer-director Floyd Mutrux lays out the essence of Aloha, Bobby And Rose. At its heart, this is a movie about people who feel the pull of nostalgia before life has given them anything to feel nostalgic about.
That also describes the Elton John aesthetic circa 1975 just about perfectly.
Elton has rarely been called on to act in movies, which is surprising, given how expressive his stage show is. The Who and director Ken Russell did ask him to play a pinball champ in ginormous platform shoes in the movie version of the rock opera Tommy. John initially balked, but Russell was persistent, and not only did he eventually agree to sing “Pinball Wizard” in the film, he actually got a British hit single out of the deal, and a special-edition Bally pinball machine.
One of the oddest movie projects Elton John has ever been involved with, 1976’s All This And World War II consists entirely of WWII-era newsreels and movies, cut together to a soundtrack of heavily orchestrated Beatles covers. John’s version of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” had been released as a single two years earlier, and was already an international hit. But it was just as out-of-place as every other song in the film, slipped under incongruous footage of fighter planes.
Elton John’s first era of superstardom had begun to fade by the end of the ’70s, as he dealt with drug and relationship problems, and a general lack of inspiration. But he remained a reliable hitmaker throughout the ’80s, and he experimented with the medium of home video, too, releasing concerts and music video collections throughout the decade. (A full set of videos for his underrated 1981 album, The Fox, is almost like mini Elton John movie.) Then, in the middle of Walt Disney Animation’s incredible early-’90s winning streak, lyricist Tim Rice found himself in need of a composer for the studio’s new project The Lion King, and suggested Elton. The resulting music—sweeping, stirring numbers like “Circle Of Life” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”—scored with audiences and with radio, giving John his biggest hit album in decades.
Give credit to the image-conscious John for allowing his husband, David Furnish, to shoot this warts-and-all portrait of a 1995 tour, complete with multiple profanity-filled screaming fits by the star. Part of what’s made Elton John so popular across the years is that beneath all the glitter and costumes, he’s also tried to be honest about his faults and fears, as well as his passions and pleasures.
Comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks took a big swing with this bittersweet supernatural comedy about a struggling Hollywood screenwriter who blows through his savings pampering a woman who claims to be an honest-to-goodness muse. Brooks got Sharon Stone to play the title character, and sprinkled in cameos by famous directors Rob Reiner, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese. He also hired Elton John to provide the mostly instrumental score. John even reunited with Bernie Taupin for the title song, which… well, let’s just say that the songwriters’ own muse must’ve been MIA that day.
DreamWorks Animation tried to buy a little of Disney’s Lion King magic with the highly conceptual The Road To El Dorado, a riff on the old Bing Crosby-Bob Hope musical comedies set in the early 1600s and scored by Rice and John. (Elton also narrates the picture.) The film was indifferently received by both critics and the public, and the soundtrack didn’t fare much better. Having just completed the Broadway version of The Lion King and the Tony-winning Aida, Rice and John were perhaps a little dry of ideas, and so they defaulted to bland adult contemporary—which, on their version of the album, they perform with the likes of Don Henley, Randy Newman, and the Backstreet Boys. In the movie, the songs are sung by the voice actors (led by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh), but, tellingly, The Road To El Dorado never became popular enough to get an actual cast album.
It’s possible that the moment when Elton John’s music most inspired movie magic happened in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film about his life as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter in the early ’70s. In a scene taking place the morning after a rising rock band’s guitarist has gone AWOL and made an intoxicated fool of himself, the group sits in angry silence on the tour bus while “Tiny Dancer” plays on the radio. The bass player (played by real-life Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek) starts singing along. One by one, everyone else joins him, until they’re all belting out the chorus with big grins on their faces. That’s the power of a great song.
Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)/Sherlock Gnomes (2018)
Elton John executive-produced and leant essentially his whole greatest-hits collection to these two deeply silly animated movies about the adventures of garden gnomes. The best that can be said about both of them is: Better a garden gnome movie with classic Elton John songs than one without.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)
Every now and then—though perhaps not often enough—Elton has made cameo appearances in movies as “himself.” He’s in Spice World and The Country Bears; and he’s especially impressive in the Kingsman sequel, where he saves Colin Firth’s character from killer robot dogs just by… being himself. (The robot’s internal display reads: “Elton John Detected - Friend.”) Maybe this is why John hasn’t acted in more films. Who’s a better character than Sir Elton John?