Over the span of his four-decade, history-making career, Elton John has performed one timeless song after the other. While it’s nearly impossible to pick the most iconic tune, one that is certainly up there is his 1972 hit song “Rocket Man,” also the name of the highly anticipated biopic premiering May 31.
While it’s the perfect time for audiences to revisit some of their favorite Elton John songs, the use of this particular song as the narrative glue in Rocketman might make even seasoned fans take a second look at the meaning of the “Rocket Man” lyrics. Prior to the film's use of the tune, John and his lyricist partner Bernie Taupin have addressed its meaning in the past, as well as its surprising inspiration.
While the film doesn’t show exactly how the song came about (if we're to follow the film's fantastical rendering as gospel, then the song came to John as a child — it didn't), it is weaved throughout the story and is performed at several poignant moments in John’s life. Fans should take most uses of John's songs in Rocketman as narrative devices, rather than autobiographical archives, considering John’s songs were mostly written by Taupin.
“Rocket Man” was inspired by the Ray Bradbury story “The Rocket Man” from his 1951 collection of sci-fi short stories The Illustrated Man, as Taupin and John explained in a 2016 interview with The Cut.
Bradbury’s collection of stories depicted the complex relationship between technology and psychology, and this one in particular was about an astronaut's love of the stars. The man ventures into space for three months at a time and returns to earth for only a few short days to see his wife and son, deeply torn between his love of space and his family. The song imagines what his long adventures, while filled with loneliness, would be like. Taupin further explained, “Astronauts in the future would become sort of an everyday job. So I kind of took that idea and ran with it.”
The chorus alone encapsulates this idea, with lyrics such as: “And I think it's gonna be a long long time/'Till touch down brings me round again to find/I'm not the man they think I am at home.”
Taupin explained more about the “Rocket Man” concept in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. “In ’71, the future of space flight was exhilarating. America was putting astronauts on the moon,” he said. “Yet 20 years earlier, Bradbury had envisioned future astronauts as little more than intergalactic truck drivers, burning themselves out alone far from home.” A year before the song was written, for example, the US space mission Apollo 14 landed on the moon.
The song may not have started out as deeply personal for John or Taupin, but now that it serves as the soundtrack of their career, its mark on them, on fans, and on pop culture has nowhere to go but up.