This week’s question comes from A.V. Club contributor Caroline Siede, in honor of the release of Rocketman on May 31:
What’s your favorite use of an Elton John song in pop culture?
It feels a little weird to go with a text entry for a musical question. But to be fair, Stephen King has never shied away from incorporating popular songs into his work, often to excellent effect. Few carry as nasty or heartbreaking a punch as the appearance of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” in the fifth Dark Tower book, Wolves Of The Calla, where it serves as a sort of anthem for Father Callahan, a refugee from the author’s much earlier ’Salem’s Lot. Damned by a failure of faith in the face of abject evil, Callahan’s slow redemption as a low-key vampire hunter is frequently underscored by John’s song of hard-won freedom, sometimes sincerely, and sometimes with a mean-spirited veneer of irony in the face of his many failures. King’s reliance on pop culture detritus sometimes overwhelms the often-unwieldy latter Dark Tower books—this is the same entry that ends with the reveal that its titular baddies are literally Doctor Doom robots carrying Harry Potter sporting equipment as weapons—but in “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” it finds a perfect spiritual sibling to Callahan’s suffering: a little mournful, full of painful moments, but ultimately, shot through with hope.
“Crocodile Rock” is one of Elton John’s lesser hits, a chirpy paean to bygone days that at least reinforces the crucial thread of melancholy running through his catalogue. But it’s the only number that could kick off John’s episode of The Muppet Show, a high-water mark of ’70s variety TV recorded at the tail end of the singer-songwriter’s imperial period. When I saw the episode for the first time, I only knew Elton John as a voice on the radio, singing in odd staccato fashion about Marilyn Monroe, why they call it the blues, and, yes, old blue jeans. But his Muppet Show rendition of “Crocodile Rock” introduced me to the explosive imagination and playfulness that went with that voice, as Sir Elton, resplendent in rainbow-sherbet feathers, gold chest plate, and bedazzled bathing cap, serenaded a swamp full of deadly reptiles, backed The Electric Mayhem—whose leader, Dr. Teeth, took no small sartorial inspiration from Captain Fantastic. He’s a Muppet for those four minutes (which explains why he’s nearly eaten at the end of the segment), and for that reason, this is the only context in which I’m ever eager to hear “Crocodile Rock.”
The Americans knew how to drop an effective needle. See the use of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in the show’s fifth season finale, a period-appropriate choice that underscored the transitional, melancholy stages of the various Jennings family members. Like show itself (especially in the fifth season), the “Yellow Brick Road”-set montage luxuriates in its premise, taking its time to play the entire song as we cut between Peter, Elizabeth, and Paige, each going through their own transformations as they struggle with their pasts and grapple with their futures. Paige is leaving childhood behind as she says goodbye to Pastor Tim and enters espionage training; Philip contemplates retiring from the Soviet spy game; and Elizabeth, who really just wants to go home to the Soviet Union, takes stock of the American amenities and conveniences she’s surrounded by in her comfortable suburban home. The “Yellow Brick Road” montage set to a pop song of the era might not reach the heights of series closer “With Or Without You,” but it so effectively captures the mood of the characters that the song’s become intrinsically linked with that episode whenever I hear it.
I don’t think anyone automatically thought of “Tiny Dancer” as a giant singalong before the bus scene in Almost Famous, but now it comes up at pretty much every karaoke outing I attend (and I attend many). In the Elton John-focused scene, the band is mad at guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) for taking off and crashing a neighborhood party on tour, trailed by aspiring journalist William (Patrick Fugit). As Russell is collected and deposited back on the tour bus, everybody is silent and tense. “Tiny Dancer” kicks in and slowly the bus passengers are brought together by their love for FM radio. Even the members of a hard rock back like Stillwater know every word to “Tiny Dancer” by heart, and lines like “Count the headlights on the highway” are a perfect description of life on the road. When William protests that he needs to go home, groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) whispers, “Poof! You are home,” brought into the family of the band via the Elton John song. The only downside, actually, is that the actual “Tiny Dancer” is more than six minutes long, and that chorus is going to come back a few more times than you may be expecting. You’ll love it while you’re singing it at the karaoke bar, but you’ll definitely be done with it by the time it finally draws to a close.
As my coworkers have noted, there are some lovely, affecting uses of Elton John’s art in popular culture, moments that highlight his musical brilliance and underscore the universal appeal of his songs. So why is it that the only moment burned into my brain for eternity is Max Wright on ALF singing “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”? Honestly, I don’t even remember seeing a rerun of this episode as a kid—I couldn’t tell you the context, though looking it up now, it appears Willie Tanner (Wright) was making a music video for his wife, having been inspired by Alf’s own dalliance with the MTV-centric art form—so I’m not entirely certain when I was exposed to it. Nonetheless, at some point early in my life I was confronted with this horror, and I haven’t been able to forget it since. For a long time, I actually assumed it was an original song created for the show, and it wasn’t until I was mindlessly singing it one day in high school that someone informed me it was really an Elton John tune. It was still another year or two before I wised up and bought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but by then the damage was done: I can’t hear the song without picturing a hairy puppet training a camera on a middle-aged man in John-aping sunglasses, like some sort of deranged fetish film. I’ve slowly come to embrace the absurdity of this mental image, however, and now it brings me comfort during moments it used to drive me insane, like at 3 a.m. when all I want to do is sleep, but instead have the words “Saturday, Saturday” replaying endlessly in my mind. What’s that? No, I don’t currently see a therapist, why do you ask?
I have an almost preposterous level of affection for the 2016 Illumination animated film Sing, which stars Matthew McConaughey as an optimistic koala, Reese Witherspoon as an overworked pig mom, and Scarlett Johansson as a punk rock porcupine. More relevantly, it also features Taron Egerton voicing a soulful teenage gorilla who brings down the house with his big performance of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” According to this Hollywood Reporter profile, the performance played at least some small part in helping Egerton land the role in Rocketman, which is a delightfully weird footnote in cinema history. It’s also just a super charming performance in its own right, with Egerton’s Johnny singing his heart out while his criminal father Big Daddy (Peter Serafinowicz) breaks out of prison to finally show up to support his son’s dreams. Sing may not be an all-time great animated film, but its amiable charms are worth checking out if you’ve got kids to entertain or just want to track one of the more unexpected casting journeys in Hollywood history.