The Guide to Getting Into Elton John, Pop's Most Colorful Storyteller

A new biopic called 'Rocketman,' out this week, tells the story of the songwriter himself. Here's the music you need to know going in.

by Bonnie Stiernberg; illustrated by Tara Jacoby
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May 31 2019, 12:00pm

Elton John has, objectively speaking, a lot of stuff. He's got the largest private collection of photography in the world. He purchases four copies of every record he buys so that he has one to keep in each of his homes. He, of course, is the owner of the most magnificent assortment of sunglasses known to man.

But he's also got something else, something intangible that helped young Reginald Dwight become the rhinestone-loving legend who has sold over 300 million records—an uncanny ability to tap into the most basic human experiences and emotions and make them sound exceptional. He sings about going out to a bar on a Saturday night like he invented the concept. He makes a line like "If I was a sculptor, but then again, no" sound like poetry. When he sings about love, it's "enough to make kings and vagabonds believe the very best" and make us root for two cartoon lions to make out. Vocally, he knows when to dial it back to give the feelings room to breathe and when the sentiments demand to soar. His musical arrangements elevate the lyrics, adding a little shimmer to help us hear the magic in our everyday lives.

On May 31, his music will hit the silver screen again, this time in the form of Rocketman, a biopic starring Taron Egerton as Sir Elton Hercules John himself. With the career he's had, it's nearly impossible to not be familiar with at least a handful of his hits—we've all done "Tiny Dancer" at karaoke at least once, right?—but if you need a refresher before the movie or you're looking to dig a little deeper into Captain Fantastic, we've put together this guide with five places to start.

So you want to get into: Extravagant Elton?

Flamboyant costumes help add a little spectacle when you're trapped behind a piano for your entire set, but ultimately, the songs have to be there to back it all up. That's never been a problem for Elton John; for all the pageantry, he's got dozens of high-energy songs meant to get the audience moving and singing along, whether he's declaring his own resiliency ("I'm Still Standing") or triumph ("The Bitch Is Back"), making sad songs sound deceptively upbeat ("Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," "Sad Songs (Say So Much)") or simply showing off his soul chops while belting out lyrics even he has admitted he doesn't understand ("Take Me to the Pilot").

He no doubt picked up a thing for two in that department from his early heroes like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, paying tribute to the years "when rock was young" on the nostalgic "Crocodile Rock" while emulating the style of that era, busting out his best falsetto and miraculously cramming every single syllable of "crocodile rocking" into the chorus. Unsurprisingly, that song earned him his first No. 1 single in the United States, reaching the top of the charts in February of 1973 and staying there for three weeks.

Playlist: "Crocodile Rock" / "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" / "The Bitch Is Back" / "I'm Still Standing" / "Philadelphia Freedom" / "Honky Cat" / "Bennie and the Jets" / "Take Me to the Pilot" / "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" / "Sad Songs (Say So Much)"

So you want to get into: Emotional Elton?

As adept as he is at crowd-pleasing rockers, Elton John's strongest gear may just be emotional piano ballads. Somehow, in his hands, they never sound saccharine; they hit you right in the gut. Some credit for that of course belongs to his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, who writes all the lyrics, but what's most stunning about most of these songs is John's impeccable gift for melody. Take, for instance, the iconic, elegant piano intro to "Tiny Dancer," like something you’d hear after opening a music box, or the understated but gorgeous chorus to "Your Song." What would they be in lesser hands?

Vocally, he's capable of going big, like on "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," but some of his most effective, emotional performances are also his most restrained, like "Candle in the Wind." A massive success not once, but twice—John and Taupin revised the lyrics, originally about the death of Marilyn Monroe, in 1997 after Princess Diana's untimely passing to make them relevant to England's Rose—the song hits upon something universally touching about those who die young: "your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."

Playlist: "Candle in the Wind" / "Your Song" / "Sacrifice" / "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" / "Tiny Dancer" / "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" / "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" / "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" / "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore"

So you want to get into: Elton's Character Studies?

There's a reason Elton John and Bernie Taupin have been writing songs together ever since they both answered the same ad for a songwriter in the NME in 1967. Their music and lyrics blend seamlessly together, and no one else is capable of bringing Taupin's words to life the way John does. Perhaps that's best exemplified on the pair's story songs, as John effectively embodies the characters Taupin crafts for him and brings their experiences to life, no matter how different from his own they happen to be.

Whether he's telling the story of a Vietnam vet returning home ("Daniel"), making us feel for an astronaut who misses his kids ("Rocket Man") or simply expressing a desire to leave it all behind and go back to his roots ("Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"), John is an expert narrator, skilled at weaving both first- and third-person tales. He's able to inhabit whatever character Taupin asks him to, be it a grieving Civil War soldier ("My Father's Gun" and elsewhere on the 1970 concept album Tumbleweed Connection), a Cold War-era German ("Nikita") or a Native American ("Indian Sunset"). On paper, it shouldn’t work to have him telling the stories of characters he has nothing to do with, but somehow John is able to transcend those boundaries and tap into the emotion behind the songs and use it as a connective tissue of sorts. He may be singing about a person from another place and time, but love, grief, regret—those are universal.

Playlist: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" / "Rocket Man" / "My Father's Gun" / "Daniel" / "Levon" / "Burn Down the Mission" / "Nikita" / "Where to Now, St. Peter?" / "Indian Sunset"

So you want to get into: Elton's Collaborations?

His work with Taupin may be his longest and most well-known collaboration, but John has always gone out of his way to work with and champion other artists, whether he's performing with them at the Grammys, representing them via his management company Rocket Entertainment, or shouting them out on his Carpool Karaoke segment. The artists he elects to collaborate with run the gamut, from country legends like Tammy Wynette to none other than Stevie Wonder (who plays the memorable harmonica solo on "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues").

In 1993, he released Duets, which included a live version of his "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" duet with George Michael that reached No. 1 in both the US and the UK. But his coolest collaborative album came decades later with 2010's The Union, a joint effort with Leon Russell that also features appearances by Neil Young, Booker T. Jones and Brian Wilson. Its debut at No. 3 gave John his highest-charting studio album since 1976's Blue Moves.

Playlist: "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" ft. Kiki Dee / "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" / "Hey Ahab" w/ Leon Russell / "If It Wasn't For Bad" w/ Leon Russell / "Gone to Shiloh" w/ Leon Russell / "A Woman's Needs" ft. Tammy Wynette / "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" ft. George Michael

So you want to get into: Elton's Soundtracks?

It makes sense, given his knack for theatrics, that Elton John would be great at writing music for film and theater. He's currently just an Emmy shy of an EGOT, having received an Oscar for The Lion King's "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" in 1995 and a Tony for his music for Aida in 2000. Aida came to be after Disney bought the rights to the story, intending to turn it into an animated feature. John declined, not wanting to do another animated movie after The Lion King, so Disney execs opted to turn it into a Broadway adaptation instead. John and Leann Rimes' version of "Written in the Stars" gave them an adult contemporary hit.

He also penned the music for the Broadway adaptation of Billy Elliot, poking fun at Margaret Thatcher and delivering his usual spark on "Electricity." But with the upcoming opening of Rocketman, John's providing the soundtrack to his own life, penning the original "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" and performing it with Taron Egerton, his onscreen counterpart. It's an uplifting number, a self-care pledge from a legend that "I'm gonna love me again, check in with my very best friend." And nearly 50 years into an unparalleled career, what's not to love?

Playlist: "Circle of Life" ( The Lion King) / "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" ( The Lion King) / "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" ( The Lion King) / "Electricity" ( Billy Elliot the Musical) / "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" ( Billy Elliot the Musical) / "Written in the Stars" ( Aida) / "A Step Too Far" ( Aida) / "The Muse" ( The Muse) / "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" ft. Taron Egerton ( Rocketman)

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