Mind and Body

What goes up must come down

A review of the movie, “Rocketman,” from the perspective of recovery

Image courtesy of Facebook trailer for "Rocketman."

A scene from the movie, "Rocketman," a biopic of Elton John.

By Tom Coderre
Posted 6/24/19
A review by Tom Coderre of the new film biopic, “Rocketman,” about the life of Elton John, provides an insightful lens into the forces of trauma, addiction, and the power of recovery.
How would the issues of stigma around behavioral health, mental health and substance use disorders be changed if we changed the language to describing these conditions as “brain health?” Has the introduction of trauma-informed care changed the dynamic in primary care settings? Is there an opportunity to create a public, statewide database that tracks the diseases of despair, including alcohol, suicide and drugs, in one unified dataset? What are the opportunities to increase Medicaid reimbursements for Rhode Islanders with mental health, behavioral health and substance use disorders, to allow them to be referred to providers?
Sociologist Shannon Monnat has published new research entitled, “Place-Based Economic Conditions and the Geography of the Opioid Overdose Crisis,” in which she argues that there is not one opioid crisis in America, but many, and that supply-focused measures won’t stop them.
In the study, Monnat and her co-authors classified U.S. counties into six different opioid classes, based on their overall rates and rates of growth in fatal overdoses from specific types of opioids between 2002-2004 and 2014-2016. The study then examined how various economic, labor market and demographic characteristics vary across these different opioid classes, showing that various economic factors, including concentrations of specific occupations and industries, are important to explaining the geography of the U.S. opioid overdose crisis.

PROVIDENCE – You may have already read a review or two of “Rocketman,” the recently released Elton John biopic. While it was named after his 1972 hit song certified three times platinum in the U.S., it also very well describes his life and ascension to stardom. Many reviews focus on the rise of this eclectic star as well as the sex and drugs that are so often associated with rock and roll.

“It is a tried-and-true jukebox musical fantasia seemingly prepackaged for the Broadway stage, packed with toe-tapping sing-alongs you’ve known and loved for decades,” wrote Christy Lemire in a review for RogerEbert.com. “Songs spring from significant moments in John’s life or so we’re led to believe. And, of course, there are plenty of montages: the obligatory depiction of John’s hits rising up the charts and racking up gold records; the concerts, headlines and adoring fans; the shopping sprees to spend his insane riches; the trying-on of various ornate hats glasses and spangled get-ups and all the sex and drugs that go along with the rock ‘n’ roll.”

When I saw the movie, I couldn’t help but notice how his traumatic childhood led to the addiction anxiety and depression this icon suffered and has since recovered from.

After seeing “A Star Is Born” and then “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I thought I was primed for what I believed would be more of the same. To the contrary.

“Rocketman” takes a musical approach, using original Elton John numbers in between scenes that take us through his storied life. These transitions give us time to process just how difficult it was to grow up as Reginald Dwight, a shy kid from a London suburb, whose parents were incapable of giving him the attention and love he desperately craved.

His mom, Sheila, rarely tore her eyes away from her own mirror to look at him. His father, Stanley, was rarely home. And when he was, the cold,hard man took no interest in him at all. Withholding this emotional support left permanent scars.

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening, with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], in the United States, 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event and 90 percent of clients in public behavioral health care settings have experienced trauma.

If trauma goes unaddressed, people with mental illnesses and addictions will have poor physical health outcomes; ignoring trauma can hinder recovery.

We must view “Rocketman” through the lens of time – that period when little was understood about the impact of trauma. Back then, you either plowed forward or got run over. Thankfully, Reggie had his grandmother, a forceful presence in his life, as a cheerleader, who encouraged him to chin up and chase his dreams. This enabled him to put aside his emotions, earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music and pursue a career in music.

After graduation he responded to a random newspaper ad and fortuitously met Bernie Taupin, the platonic friends-for-life love and longtime collaborator with whom he wrote most of his hits.

Elton John’s path was one of luck, where opportunity meets preparedness. However, he doesn’t escape having to return to face those demons he stuffed away; they were always lurking silently in the background.

In the film, his addictions and flaws are on full display; the movie actually opens with him in group therapy at a treatment center admitting he’s an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sex addict, and a shopaholic. At one point, his boyfriend hits him in the face, leaving bruises, and he washes down pills with vodka before standing on a diving board and declaring that he’s going to kill himself. Many scenes show him snorting lines of cocaine and guzzling booze; he often appears sloppy and out of it. It’s as painful to watch as a car crash in slow motion.

In recovery
For nearly 30 years now Elton John has been in recovery. His poly-substance use and co-occurring mental illness were severe. While “Rocketman” shows much more of his addiction than his recovery, I’m impressed with how well the film provides a window into how intertwined trauma is in these diseases of the brain.

The world is grateful for the intervention that led him out of the darkness and to become one of the greatest artists and pop icons of our time.

Tom Coderre is a senior adviser to Gov. Gina Raimondo and co-chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention.


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