Elton John Survived and Recovered Due to Purpose and Meaning

The film “Rocketman” suggests none of this

Posted Jun 27, 2019

 Rocketman makes Elton John a poster boy for rehab and “sobriety.” But the facts, and John, tell a different story—one of meaning and purpose.  

The film begins with John’s departing Madison Square Garden in costume to participate in a group session at a bucolic rehab. As he symbolically sheds his outrageous outfit, John reveals his traumatic past and various addictions⁠—including alcohol, cocaine, pills and sex.

At the end of the film, he announces that he has now been sober for 25-plus years, is married, and has two young children. So 12-step rehab triumphs again!

But the film never engages in the 12 Steps, only the rehab setting and self-exploration process John underwent. In a joint New York Times interview, John and lyricist Bernie Taupin, his lifetime musical partner, discuss John’s rehab experience. Neither mentions the 12 Steps, “powerlessness,” or “disease.”

For Taupin, John’s rehab was a work cure:

“That scene in the film when I visit him [in rehab], and he’s mopping the floor, I remember how much he enjoyed doing his own laundry, mopping the floor, scrubbing the toilet. Once he was in that situation, he adhered to it 100 percent, he totally embraced it.”

The film traces John’s loveless upbringing; neither parent nurtured or seemingly loved him. Much of John’s adult unhappiness is linked to his relationship with John Reid, his “early manager, and boyfriend, is portrayed as a sly manipulator.” 

On the other hand, Rocketman depicts John’s live-in grandmother as doting on him; his stepfather was likewise supportive. So John didn’t face life devoid of the care and love of others. And the film portrays John’s half-century caring relationship with his writing partner, Taupin. Their joint interview is a paean to their partnership.

The bulk of the film addresses John’s family relationships and search for love, with which he comes to grips in rehab. But he doesn’t attribute recovery to that therapy: “I think the film eventually is about redemption, and how anyone can get redemption if they try.” 

In other words, recovery is a natural path of development.

John has also praised and supported Johann Hari’s 2015 bestseller, Chasing the Scream, which opposes the disease theory of addiction. Hari places the need for love and community and their absence at the heart of addiction.

Although Rocketman focuses squarely on his past, John downplays the need to do this. “I very rarely look back on my life, [although] of course I had to, to watch this movie.” His and Taupin’s joint interview begins: “Elton John is not a nostalgist. Neither is [Taupin] … ‘I think one of the keys that has driven us all these years, it’s the fact that we never look back,’ Taupin said.”

John likewise cuts two ways about the role of his high-energy, constantly onstage lifestyle: “I was on adrenaline, and sooner or later you crash and burn, and unfortunately the drugs helped me crash and burn.” 

Reviews, naturally, focus on the addicted rockstar John, who the film shows were “reduced to a lonely, paranoid, angry junkie.” But real-life John completed rehab in 1990 when he was in his 40s.  

John has told a different, non-rehab story: “Elton John Credits Music, Ryan White Friendship For Sobriety.” Speaking at Harvard in 2017, John declared:

“I had the luck to meet Ryan White and his family. I wanted to help them … Ryan was the spark that helped me to recover from my addictions and start the AIDS foundation. Within six months I became sober.” 

Notice he doesn’t mention rehab at all.

Critically, John had adopted a new life purpose. Music, his passion, had underlaid his survival until then:

“That’s what kept me alive. During the hard times, I still kept myself busy. I didn’t shut myself away and just do drugs. . . . You can say that, initially, music saved me — the most incredible part of my childhood was the music. And then when I came to the difficult part of my fame, the music still saved me, because I still worked, and I still made records. And if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be speaking to you here today. 

[My emphasis]

The Times says: “At 72, John remains artistically engaged—in the midst of a farewell tour, and still composing for films and theater.” 

As such, John embodies research showing that purpose determines not only recovery but longevity

John has built—and rebuilt—his life around purpose, worked through difficult life issues and settled into a lifestyle with which he is comfortable and that he finds satisfying. He doesn’t give rote testimony about his inescapable traumatic past, I-am-powerless recovery process, or I-am-forever-an-addict identity.

And Elton John may be sober, but he doesn’t abstain from his greatest need—and addiction—love. (Or, as he says in Rocketman’s prelude, from his shopping addiction.)