The Story Behind Every Song on the ‘Rocketman’ Soundtrack
Even though the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman focuses on the singer's early years and rise to fame, the movie's soundtrack includes 22 songs from his entire career.
They range from some of his biggest hits to cuts written before he had a record contract to one specifically composed for the movie by John and Bernie Taupin. (The soundtrack comes out on May 24.)
According to the creative team behind the movie, Rocketman isn't a traditional biopic. Rather, it's an "epic musical fantasy" that adapts some surreal tones to tell its story. And instead of using John's original performances, the movie features new recordings of the classic songs, with vocals by star Taron Egerton and other actors.
“It was so important that the music I composed and recorded had to be sung by Taron,” John said in a press release. “I wanted his interpretation of me, through Bernie’s lyrics and my music -- not just acting.”
He added that he took a hands-off approach to the soundtrack, allowing producer Giles Martin to work with Egerton to get the best possible performance out of the actor. “I didn't want to be in Taron's shadows, watching over the process," John said.
"I trusted them to do what they needed to do, artistically, and listening back I've been astonished with the results. Getting the music right was the most important thing, as the songs in the film are integral to the story.”
We take a look at the history of the songs included on the soundtrack below. Except where noted, the vocals you'll hear in the movie and on the album are performed by Egerton.
1. "The Bitch Is Back" (1974)
"The Bitch Is Back" kicked off John's eighth studio album, Caribou, and has long been a staple of his live shows. With the support of the mighty Tower of Power horn section, the song reached No. 4 in the U.S. even though it was banned from many radio stations due to the repeated use of the word "bitch." It was reportedly inspired by Taupin's then-wife, Maxine Feibelman, who once said, "Oh God, the bitch is back!" when the singer was in a bad mood. The song is sung by Egerton and Sebastian Rich on the soundtrack.
2. "I Want Love" (2001)
Released on 2001's Songs From the West Coast, "I Want Love" is the most recent previously released John-Taupin composition to be included in Rocketman. The track, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, gained fame for its one-take video of Robert Downey Jr. lip-synching the song as he walked around Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. It is performed in the movie by Kit Connor (who plays the young Elton John), Bryce Dallas Howard (as John's mother), Gemma Jones and Steven Mackintosh.
3. "Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)" (1973)
Connor gives a second vocal performance in Rocketman with a track that may be an odd choice for a young character to sing, given its lyrics. Still, "Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)" was one of the many hits to surface from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, reaching No. 12 in the U.S. and No. 7 in the U.K.
4. "Thank You for All Your Loving" (1968)
"Thank You for All Your Loving" is the oldest John song used in Rocketman, co-written with his former Bluesology guitarist Caleb Quaye in 1968. They gave it to a group called Dukes Nobleman; John played piano and organ on the recording, which found a home as the B-side of "City of Windows." John's version was officially released on only the Portuguese EP featuring his debut single "I've Been Loving You."
5. "Border Song" (1970)
Found on Elton John's self-titled second album, "Border Song" became his first song to chart in the U.S. when it just dented the Hot 100 in 1970. Aretha Franklin's cover did better when it peaked at No. 35 later that year. Taupin wrote the song's first two verses, but, as they revealed in a joint interview with Rolling Stone in 1973, John contributed the last one to stretch out the song's length. "That’s why the last verse is very mundane," the singer said.
6. "Rock & Roll Madonna" (1970)
The follow-up to "Border Song" in the U.K., "Rock & Roll Madonna" met with a similar fate when it also failed to chart in his home country. The B-side, "Grey Seal," was re-recorded for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. "Rock & Roll Madonna" remained unconnected to an album until the 1995 reissue of Elton John, when it was one of three bonus tracks.
7. "Your Song" (1970)
"Your Song" was the song that launched John to global stardom, becoming a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. But Taupin admitted in 1989 that his contribution is “one of the most naive and childish lyrics in the entire repertoire of music, but I think the reason it still stands up is because it was real at the time.” After receiving Taupin's lyrics, John sat down at the piano in his parents' North London apartment and wrote the melody and chord changes in about 20 minutes.
8. "Amoreena" (1971)
Tumbleweed Connection revealed Taupin's fascination with the Old West that would routinely provide inspiration to him over the years. It was reinforced with some steel guitar, harmonica and John adding some twang to his voice on this song about longing for a woman. "Amoreena" wasn't released as a single, but it did reach a wider audience when it was used in the opening credits of the 1975 movie Dog Day Afternoon.
9. "Crocodile Rock" (1972)
Much of the Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player LP was a look back at the music of John and Taupin's youths, with nods to Stax Records and Phil Spector particularly obvious. "Crocodile Rock" follows the theme, with a lyric about the days when "rock was young" and going to sock hops with Suzy, plus a wordless singalong chorus. It was a Top 5 hit in both the U.S. and the U.K.
10. "Tiny Dancer" (1971)
"Tiny Dancer" was hardly the best-selling single of his classic period, just missing the Top 40. But the Madman Across the Water opener has become one of John's most-loved songs thanks to decades of album-rock radio airplay and a famous scene in Cameron Crowe's 2000 movie Almost Famous. Taupin said his lyric was inspired both by Maxine Feibelman (when they were still a couple) and the numerous women he and John met on their first trip to California (after Taupin's divorce from Feibelman). The song's secret weapon is Paul Buckmaster's orchestral arrangement, which takes the song to an epic place.
11. "Take Me to the Pilot" (1970)
The B-side of "Your Song" is one of John's most inscrutable songs, with Taupin admitting that even he doesn't know what it's about. "There's no thread of reality," he told Rolling Stone. "The pilot can be anything, from something as insignificant as a pilot of a plane to Pontius Pilate. It's however deep the listener wants to go, but for me there wasn't a tremendous amount of depth. It was right off the top of the head."
12. "Hercules" (1972)
The deepest album cut on the Rocketman soundtrack, "Hercules" closed out Honky Chateau on a lighthearted, bouncy note. Shortly before the album's release, Reginald Kenneth Dwight legally became Elton Hercules John. “Changing the name helped me a lot,” John once said. “I’m still the same person as Reg Dwight, but Elton John gave me a feeling of confidence.”
13. "Don’t Go Breaking My Heart" (1976)
As successful as John had become by 1976, he surprisingly had yet to place a song at the top of the British singles chart. "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," a duet with Kiki Dee fashioned in the style of Marvin Gaye's hits with Tammi Terrell, became John's first U.K. No. 1 and sixth in the U.S. In Rocketman, Egerton performs the song with Rachel Muldoon.
14. "Honky Cat" (1972)
Sung by Egerton and Richard Madden, who plays Elton's manager and boyfriend John Reid, "Honky Cat" reflects Taupin's rural upbringing, reinforced by Davey Johnstone's banjo, as he adjusts to life in the city. John's New Orleans-inflected piano groove owes a bit to Dr. John's songs from the era. The single peaked at No. 8 in the U.S. and No. 31 in the U.K.
15. "Pinball Wizard" (1975)
The only song on the Rocketman soundtrack not written at least in part by John, "Pinball Wizard" comes from Ken Russell's film adaptation of the Who's 1969 rock opera Tommy. In the movie, John, wearing gigantic platform boots, is the pinball champ who loses to Tommy. Even though the Who are seen performing the song in the 1975 film, John recorded it with his own band, with his piano following Pete Townshend's iconic acoustic guitar part.
16. "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time)" (1972)
Rocketman's de facto title song arrived when the public's fascination with outer space was at its peak. The Honky Chateau single was another Top 10 transatlantic hit and, like David Bowie's "Space Oddity," its lyric summed up the sense of isolation in space travel. But where Bowie left Major Tom floating in the void, Taupin adds a stronger dose of humanity, with a lyric inspired by a Ray Bradbury story that envisioned the astronaut's mission as a run-of-the-mill business trip.
17. "Bennie and the Jets" (1973)
John again followed Bowie's lead, singing about a fictional glam band on "Bennie and the Jets" from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. “I saw Bennie and the Jets as a sort of proto-sci-fi punk band, fronted by an androgynous woman who looks like something out of a Helmut Newton photograph," Taupin told Rolling Stone. John was against releasing the song as a single until he heard it was receiving airplay on black radio stations in Detroit. “I went, ‘Oh, my God,’" he said. "I mean, I’m a white boy from England. And I said, ‘Okay, you’ve got it.'" At which point "Bennie and the Jets" shot up to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
18. "Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (1974)
One of John's most gorgeous and heartbreaking ballads, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" found chart success twice: first upon its initial release on Caribou, when it peaked at No. 2, and then again 17 years later as a live duet with George Michael that went all the way to No. 1. In Rocketman, Egerton sings it with Celinde Schoenmaker, a Dutch actress who plays Renate Blauel, to whom John was married from 1984-88.
19. "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" (1976)
Released on 1976's Blue Moves, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" is one of the few moments where the music came first during the songwriting process, though there's some question as to whether John or Taupin wrote the song's famous opening line, ‘What have I got to do to make you love me?'” It was the last John-Taupin composition to hit the Top 10 in the U.S. until "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" reached No. 4 in 1983.
20. "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (1973)
On an album that includes references to Marilyn Monroe and Roy Rogers, the title track to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road stands out as one of Taupin's most effective appropriations of his love of old Hollywood. "The lyrics to the title track do say that I want to leave Oz and get back to the farm," Taupin told Rolling Stone in 2014. "I think that’s still my M.O. these days. I don’t mind getting out there and doing what everybody else was doing, but I always had to have an escape hatch.” In Rocketman, the song -- a a Top 10 hit in both the U.S. and the U.K. -- is performed as a duet by Egerton and Jamie Bell, who plays Taupin.
21. "I’m Still Standing" (1983)
After a few years in which John worked with other lyricists, notably Gary Osborne, Too Low for Zero was a full-scale return to Elton's partnership with Taupin. Even though "I'm Still Standing" just missed the Top 10, peaking at No. 12 in the U.S., it hit No. 4 in the U.K. Rocketman is the second movie to feature Egerton's vocals on the song. In 2016, he performed it in the animated film Sing as Johnny, a gorilla who defies his father by entering a singing competition.
22. "(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again" (2019)
Taupin and John wrote "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" specifically for Rocketman, which makes it eligible for an Academy Award for Best Original Song next year. The track is a duet between Egerton and John, marking John's only performance in the movie's soundtrack.