White Supremacist Cinema: Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, UK/USA/Canada, 2019)

Blogpost, British cinema, Reviews

‘So humble, it’s embarrassing,’ says John Reid (Richard Madden) to Elton John (Taron Egerton) shortly after they meet in Dexter Fletcher’s biopic of the singer. It is a trait that soon disappears as far as Elton’s possessions are concerned – with the film being in part as great a celebration of consumption, including the consumption of booze and drugs, as one could find.

Indeed, while the film gets to see Elton go through rehab and thus come to regret his excessive consumption, partially (the ending affirms that he still loves shopping), Elton nonetheless confesses to his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) that ‘Mum, I have fucked
everything that moves. And I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. D’you know what? I enjoyed every last minute of it.’

Oddly enough, given that Elton in his own words ‘fucked everything that moves,’ he barely gets any action in the film at all – and it is Reid who betrays Elton by getting head off an intern by the pool in front of the ‘poolboy.’ That is, the film is determined at pretty much every turn to cast Elton as the victim.

That Elton comes from a loveless (and homophobic) family means that Elton’s plight is neither without victimhood nor (dare I say it) something like familiarity. Indeed, the film captures well a bourgeois British tendency for signs of familial love to be effectively nil, and for love to have to exist in such a slender space of feeling that it may as well not exist at all.

Given the lovelessness of white heteronormativity – an assertion that I shall try to clarify below – it is indeed unsurprising, and plays out in some senses as convincing, that Reginald Dwight must indeed die, and that Elton John must indeed be born, in order for Elton to escape his destiny to be a part of, and thus to reproduce, its logic.

However, regardless of Elton John the person, the Elton John of the film does reproduce many aspects of hegemonic whiteness, even if with a homosexual ‘twist,’ such that the film performs what Jasbir K Puar might define as ‘homonormativity’ – or a kind of reactionary queerness.

(Given that Elton John the person has asserted of the film here that ‘[t]his is how my life was, and I didn’t want to cover it and gloss it over,’ then we must wonder how much it does reflect upon the ‘real’ Elton, not least because, as I have already suggested, the film definitely ‘glosses’ Elton’s sex life – not so much out of prurience, but in a bid to ensure that he remains ‘heroic’ in the eyes of the film. That he implies here that the film portrayed him as he ‘wanted’ also gives a loose air of not just a vanity project – since vanity projects tend to be considered to be money-losers – but also a strategic money-making ploy, with the film grossing US$195m worldwide on a US$40m budget. And as Elton laments how people buy his records instead of those by other artists… If the film offers to us ‘crocodile rock,’ perhaps its tears are also those of the same creature.)

Given that the film’s Elton is supposedly ‘so humble,’ as might be the real Elton John (were we to think it important to know), why would I now attempt to humiliate that Elton by exposing his white privilege, and thus the unthinking white supremacy of the film?

In part it is because the film is so unrelenting in its validation of Elton John as success story and yet as victim, and so unrelenting in its celebration of consumption (enjoying ‘every last minute of it’), that Rocketman becomes a prime portrayal of what Kehinde Andrews might term ‘white psychosis.’

As far as Blackness is concerned, the film – like so many others – shows Elton receiving a key life lesson from the lead singer of a band that is not fully identified in the film. Known in the credits as Wilson (Jason Pennycooke), he sings under a banner above a stage that bears several band names, including Johnny and the Apaches (seemingly a real band, but fronted by a singer who seems to be white or white passing in the images of the band that I found online) and Billy Jones (a real-life Black soul singer). Given that ‘Wilson’ says to Elton that his real name is Rodney Jones, we might surmise that ‘Wilson’ is an amalgam.

So be it, we might think, that a film would offer up an amalgam of people from Elton’s history; that’s what biopics do, after all. But this only goes to reinforce that it is not so much any particular Black person as Blackness in general that is the rock upon which his subsequent success is founded, as Wilson says to Elton the crucial line that he has to ‘kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be’ – a line that will mean completely different things to a person of colour, as opposed to a white person.

Even more important than Wilson effectively inducing Reginald Dwight to become Elton John, though, is the fact that it is another Black band member, listed in the credits as Richard (Carl Spencer), who grabs and kisses Elton, thereby inducting him into homosexuality.

In other words, not only is Blackness responsible for the creation of Elton John – shown in the film as possessing the energy and power that Elton must use in order to transform himself – but Rocketman also performs a rather neat and typically white supremacist trick in the process. This is not simply a case of how we will never see these characters again after an initial post-tour reunion in which Richard outs Reggie/Elton in front of his songwriter bro Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), thereby rendering them disposable, magical negroes. Rather it is that Elton appropriates Blackness in order to achieve both stardom and homosexuality, while at the same time appropriating the historical victimhood of Blackness in order to claim it as his own. That is, Elton steals from Blackness not just his identity, but also his status as perpetual victim within the film – a second/double theft that annuls any sense that the film’s narrative would otherwise give to us that Elton is ‘given’ the advice by Wilson and Richard (and thus does not ‘owe’ them anything in return).

As far as Bernie is concerned, he also learns truly to love the ‘American’ way of life – that is, success and hedonism – by fucking a Black woman, Heather (Sharminah Harrower), at a party supposedly at Mama Cass’s house. That this moment, when Bernie chooses to consume the Black woman over hanging out with a slightly lonely Elton, becomes a key moment of ‘betrayal’ for Elton in the film’s narrative, only goes to show that Blackness renders Elton victim once again.

Of course, we never see Heather again, but Bernie does roll up later at a party at Elton’s mansion with two white chicks, all dressed in white. Not only does Bernie ‘graduate’ from Heather to an all-white threesome, but as he enters the party a Black party goer shakes his hand and says hi, after which Bernie, flexing his antiblack muscles, boasts to the women ‘no idea who he is, of course.’

And why does Bernie have no idea who he is? Because of course’ that party goer, like Wilson and Richard before him, does not need to be identified because Blackness is faceless and fungible, as Tiffany Lethabo King and so many others have argued so cogently.

Of course, then, now that Elton and Bernie have both effectively worked out how to be Black, or rather to exploit Blackness, success is assured (and portrayed to us as natural and deserved, while figures like ‘Wilson’ and ‘Richard’ can languish in obscurity). And so by the time Elton is ‘betrayed’ by Reid for that poolside BJ, referred to in the film as ‘a bit of rock n roll,’ it is perhaps no surprise that Elton is alerted to Reid’s presence by a character referred to in the credits as LA Transgender Maid (Micah Holmes), who also happens to be Black.

That is, Blackness is there as a constant-ish presence to remind us of Elton’s victimhood, even as its presence, especially in the form of the Trans* person, is aiming to signify that Elton is himself suffering outsider with all of his millions and his loveless family.

The film’s white supremacy also plays out liminally in its casting of Stephen Graham, who is mixed race, as (the white) Dick James. For, James in the film comes across as uncouth, working class and unpleasant, thereby pushing on to a kind of marginal Blackness the ‘unpleasant’ and commercial aspects of the music industry (also embodied by the unfaithful Reid), while Elton is ‘of course’ ‘simply’ a piano man.

When Elton and Bernie early on are living with the former’s mother, we hear her complain that she effectively washes up after the pair, and that without her giving to them the time to write songs, a pastime that for them is seemingly a god-given right (because Elton John has become famous; that is, because the future justifies the past), we get a sense that Rocketman does want at least in part to acknowledge that the success of people like Elton John is built upon the labour of many.

But, as the Elton empire grows, the film rather tries to have us believe not that Elton would be nothing without that labour, but rather that such labour would not exist were it not for Elton (‘maybe all I do is play the piano, but you know what else I do? Hmm? I pay, John. For everything.’).

Getting further into the relationship with Elton’s mother, however, we see her lament towards the end of the film that she should ‘never have had children.’ This is cast as an abhorrent position for her to take. Because, you know, while we can definitely live without so many nameless and faceless people of colour in the world, we can’t live without Elton John – not least because he helped to set up an AIDS charity ‘from his kitchen table,’ as we are told in the film’s final credits. Because Elton of course knows everything about working at a kitchen table.

This is not to deny the goodness of the ‘real’ Elton John’s charitable work. But importantly it means that Elton’s mum gets to be portrayed as monstrous, with Elton thus as victim once again, while also claiming a desire for non-normativity in her role as vessel for sexual reproduction.

If, as Lee Edelman has famously argued, the pressure for normative reproduction might be resisted, not just in the name of lowering the number of humans on the planet for the purposes of minimising the detrimental impact of those same humans, and if Edelman has put this position forward as a queer position, then Rocketman takes here a somewhat strange turn in portraying Elton’s mother’s resistance towards reproductive normativity as monstrous. For, it means that Rocketman not only portrays to us another mother-hating film (with Elton’s mother having also ‘betrayed’ him early on in life for herself ‘fucking anything that moves’ – or at least for fucking Fred, played by Tom Bennett, who becomes her partner as the film progresses; he is another figure who effectively introduces Elton to rock n roll before being somewhat discarded narratively for the purposes of the construction of the Great Elton), but it places on to her a queer position that the film might otherwise adopt.

To detect in Rocketman an anti-queer set of sentiments might seem paradoxical, since the film is so obviously ‘queer’ in all but its form (this is about as ‘straight’ filmmaking, stylistically, as you can get). And yet, it also plays out in the Elton-Bernie relationship, which is the central and driving bromance of the film, and yet which of course remains chaste, while Elton’s ‘genuine’ gay relationship with Reid turns to shit. Meaning that Rocketman punishes practicing homosexuality while also pleading for Elton as victim because homosexual.

If it is clear that Rocketman insistently eats its cake and has it, then we might add that the final credits, during which the ‘real’ Elton is introduced to the film, also tell us the widely known story of his relationship with David Furnish, who is one of the film’s producers. This is a truly loving relationship, as the film makes sure to signify because the pair has two children, Zachary and Elijah. That is, Elton is finally validated for rejecting an Edelmanian ‘no future’ position on queerness, which is of course fair enough, but in the process it validates Elton as ‘real’ by virtue of his afore-mentioned ‘homonormativity.’ Unlike his mother, Elton wants and will have kids – and the world is a better place for it!

All hail non-normative families – and so bring on queer dads and, indeed, non-white reproduction (for while Edelman suggests that there are already enough people in the world, especially given the damage that they are doing to the planet, he overlooks how the people who do most of that damage, and thus who might more meaningfully be reduced in number, is white people). But since Elton has demonstrated his Black credentials, the film asks us here to overlook his whiteness – in one final gesture of white supremacy.

That final gesture of the film, though, is not the final gesture of this blog. For, during one of Elton’s therapy sessions, in which he prattles on endlessly and self-indulgently about his victimhood while a group of people (including various people of colour) simply listen to him, Elton looks pointedly at another patient, played by Black actor Dempsey Bovell, when he describes Bernie as his ‘brother.’ It is as if Elton adopts the fraternal language of African American male bonding (as per phrases like ‘my brother from another mother’, ‘brother from another planet,’ and ‘whassup my brother?’) and asks the Black patient to validate him in this appropriation.

This validation even happens subsequently when, in explaining how he has had so much difficulty in finding real love, the same patient nods sympathetically at him. ‘That’s right, Elton, your suffering is equivalent to Blackness, but don’t worry we are here to listen to your woes and to feel sorry for you like we ought to.’

Finally, if a bit more obliquely, Elton is of course staged in the film as precisely a ‘brother from another planet,’ not least through its title: Rocketman. But this ‘other planet,’ revealed as it has been as a white homonormative repetition of consumption on (and of) this planet, is thus not really ‘other’ at all. That during the rendition of the titular song Elton dives into a swimming pool and sings – i.e. breathes underwater – in the midst of a suicide attempt (or call for attention) would further help to elide Elton with Blackness, in that Blackness of course is linked to drowning and breathing underwater following the Middle Passage as per the mythology of musical artists like Drexciya. Admittedly a bit of a stretch, the sequence nonetheless loosely appropriates African American suffering once again in order to put the case forward for Elton as white victim.

Turning our attention from Blackness now and to ‘redness,’ we can detect a very loose presence of Indigeneity in Rocketman. This happens in two ways. The first is via the band name, Johnny and the Apaches, which bespeaks the appropriation of Indigeneity for the purposes of constructing a white, capitalist media entertainment complex. And the second comes via Bernie going off to fuck Heather in Mama Cass’s tepee – another appropriation of Indigeneity that here also helps to signal the white conquest of Blackness – as a rite of passage for entering into American society by a British man (a rite of passage that Elton has already been through, even as he resents Bernie for going through it as well).

In other words, Indigeneity looms as a structuring absence here, because of course there would be no USA without the genocide of Native Americans, who thus function as what Jodi A Byrd terms a ‘transit of Empire.’ That is, Empire, here the Empire of Elton John as an US$87m dollar music industry and Rocketman as a US$195m movie empire, is built upon the systematic disappearance of Indigeneity, as well as the exploitation of Blackness.

That Elton and Bernie know ‘true love,’ then, is not because they fuck; it is because they both fuck Blackness and Indigeneity alike. White normativity, which likes to think of itself as ‘love,’ is thus in fact built upon hatred – a hatred of Blackness and Indigeneity alike (as well as other people of colour; we might note that one of the people who rescues Elton from the swimming pool after his ‘suicide’ attempt is Asian). No surprise that the ‘love’ of the white heteronormative family is thus also in fact a hatred, because that white heteronormative (and homonormative) family is also built upon the same hatred that is Empire (white middle class men from Pinner as the ‘real victims’ of the world – a gold rush for victimhood that follows and is part of the exploitations of capital).

But how simultaneously excruciating and moving it is, then, for Rocketman to have the Black patient affirm Elton’s desire for love in the Parkland rehab clinic. For, in having him sympathise with Elton, not only is he of course validated as a/the victim, but it also has that character, about whom we know nothing, be given a lesson about love from a white person, when if anyone has ever felt love, real love, it is a people (or peoples) who have needed to work together, to come together and precisely to love in the face of genocide – as a very matter of survival. Not as a spectacle of gross consumption, as per this film. Self-reinvention was necessary for Rodney Jones; it was a mere luxury for Elton Hercules John. Love is a necessity for Blackness; for whiteness, ‘love’ is the never-ending consumption of the other (just as the white slaveowner ‘loves’ the Black slave that he rapes night after night).

I am glad that Elton in the film, and hopefully in life, surmounted lovelessness and through accumulating millions learned finally to love and to be loved. It is a journey out of lovelessness that many fail to achieve, because whiteness drowns in its own emotional and psychological misery.

But that this transition is expected to be understood as a grand achievement, especially considering the people of colour that the film goes through in order to get there… just renders the film an exercise in nothing more or less than a reaffirmation of Empire. The spectacle of Rocketman and the spectacle that is Elton John in some relatively outlandish and fun costumes are forced upon us to make us believe that this makes all of the hatred of Empire worthwhile – including Elton at one point dressing like Queen Elizabeth I, who herself was instrumental in setting the exploitation of the Americas in motion, just in case the Spanish got too rich from doing it themselves. But hey, those genocides were worth it, the film wishes to tell us, because Elton John was the result, and he now gets to wear a fez and become a white saviour to AIDS victims (a kitchen table activist, no less).

For me to seek to humiliate Rocketman, and perhaps by extension its lead character, and for me outrageously to suggest that the film might even be queer phobic or Trans*phobic to boot… means that I become the one who victimises Elton again, since Rocketman positions the viewer either to love the film or to be, like Elton’s mother, a monster. This is Empire. Don’t think it is anything else.

And that Elton engages in an abortive heterosexual marriage with a woman, Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), who is made in the film to look quite closely like his mother, would suggest a touch even of the Norman Bates at work in Rocketman‘s Elton John, whereby his homosexuality is born out a desire for the mother who otherwise monstrously rejects him, furthering homosexuality, therefore, as a ‘deviant’ position, that is, as Jonathan Beller understands of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (USA, 1960), a great example of precisely white psychosis.

One last throw of the dice. As Reid leaves Elton, he tells the latter that his newest record is ‘coked out, M.O.R. shit.’ Cut to Elton in a studio as ‘Victim of Love’ plays on the soundtrack – suggesting that this track from 1979 is indeed the ‘coked out, M.O.R. shit’ that Elton was plying at that point in time. It is here that he meets Renate, also implying that his attempt to be heteronormative, even if in a weird Oedipal fashion (Renate is made to look like his mother), again makes Elton the victim (he wants love, but he is also its victim; oh, the suffering…)…

As Rocketman tries to have it every which way (what Elton loves is, in his own words, ‘fucking [over] everything that moves’), including in its would-be woke but actually (racially) algorithmic casting of people of colour (including Trans* people of colour) in minor, faceless ‘background’ roles, means that these humans are reduced to yet more props, as James A. Snead understands Blackness historically to have been treated in western cinema. That is, they continue to be the prop-erty of a hegemonic whiteness – a perpetuation of slavery and theft that we all know is writ large in the music industry, and which Rocketman is completely shameless in presenting to us as simultaneously a tragedy and an undeniable success story. Coked out, M.O.R. shit, indeed.


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