ROCKETMAN (2019) and Life’s Lessons

Steven Barnes

We were looking at nine “Life Lessons” yesterday, and last night Tananarive and I saw “Rocketman.” It seemed to me that there was a perfect opportunity to discuss both of them today. If you know much about Elton John, it is hard to really “spoil” the movie, but I’m still going to be as oblique as I can…but this essay will be best read after you’ve seen it.

Here we go. Here are Lessons 2–5:


You are enrolled in a full-time, informal school called life. Each day in this school you will have the opportunity to learn lessons. You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant and stupid.


Growth is a process of trial and error, experimentation. The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works”.


A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. Then you can go on to the next lesson.


There is no part of life that does not contain its lessons. If you are alive, there are lessons to be learned.

Again, I have no sense that this is really “Ancient Sanskrit.” But on the other hand, I’ve seen versions of these thoughts from many philosophers, from many traditions, throughout the ages. There are no “new” profound truths: human beings have been observing the world for at least two hundred thousand years: there’s nothing here a healthy, observant adult might not notice, and the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a grandmother or great-uncle.

So let’s forget about WHERE it came from, and ask instead, WHAT it is saying. We just saw “Rocketman,” the Elton John biopic, and loved it. And they take a very deep dive into the question of what we do to try to complete ourselves. First of all, Taron Eggerton’s performance is fierce and fearless, and I just loved it. It is a “musical” in full, in the sense that the music is allowed to share his inner world with us through characters breaking out into song, dancing in the streets, and moving in and out of fantasy sequences that help us understand the art (Self expression, tapping into his personal joy and pain) behind the craft (the glitter performances that turned Reggie into ELTON).

See it.


But if we want to look deeper into it, we can apply the lessons above, if we just ask what goal Elton had. The Hero’s Journey suggests that there is a commonality to our life journeys: Identifying and accepting challenges, dealing with fear, taking massive action over time, finding allies and mentors and learning new abilities, dealing with failure, finding deeper faith in ourselves, and teaching others.


Let’s work backwards from what we want in life, ultimately. I find that the Dalai Lama’s thought that the meaning of life is to seek joy, is a damned good start, and the simplest profound notion I’ve ever heard. It lines up perfectly with observations of animal behavior. You’ll notice that animal behavior suggests that we have a more primary motivation: to avoid pain. But I suggest that that is a very basic level, and people stuck at “avoiding pain” need to switch to “seeking pleasure” or they get stuck in pain loops.

On the other hand, the “seeking pleasure” is also a trap,

  1. if you go for “short term” as opposed to “long term” pleasure.
  2. If you think the joy you seek will be found in other people. Whether that is the roar of an audience, or the arms of a lover, or the approval of your parents…as an adult, if you locate the source of joy outside yourself you will be co-dependent at best, or more likely a victim, all your life.

So. Elton’s narrative journey is to complete himself, to be a whole human being. His wound was a distant father (possibly rejecting his son’s homosexuality) and a…well, call her “flakey” mother. A musical prodigy, he sought approval through excellence, and love through performance. Unable to express himself elegantly with words, he found his muse Bernie Taupin, who spoke the language of his heart with poetry. But Bernie, a natural soulmate, was not gay, so Elton was never able to complete this aspect of his life, and lost himself in a maze of confusing sex with love, drugs with happiness, and the acclaim of millions for the simple pleasure of holding the one who really sees your soul.

YOU WILL LEARN LESSONS. All through the film, you can see Elton learning lessons about performance, collaboration, business, sex, and love.

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, ONLY LESSONS. Any time you dip into the life of a human being who is not wearing a bland mask, you will find massive ups and downs. If you are too badly hurt by the “downs” it is entirely possible to remember only the pain, and not ask: “what could I have done differently? How might I have avoided this? What is the lesson here?”

A LESSON IS REPEATED UNTIL IT IS LEARNED. Let’s say you decide to dig deep.

  1. You decide you are ready to be happy. To do that, one model is the “Ancient Child” notion of envisioning a separation of your aspects into adult and child. To allow the creative “child” to be happy, the “adult” must be active and strong enough to protect him.
  2. You decide to be an adult. What is an adult? One who takes responsibility for his actions and emotions. And yes, there are plenty of people over thirty year old who don’t do this. They are, by this definition, “children.” Let’s be just a little kinder: if you support yourself financially, but are still in the illusion that your happiness comes from others, you are a “sleeping adult.” The goal is to awaken to your agency.
  3. You take actions along the “road of trials”. You will take a million actions, and if you observe the results, will begin to see “clusters” — THESE behaviors lead to short or long term pain. THESE other behaviors lead to short or long term pleasure. The best behaviors? Those that give short AND long term pleasure. Those are tough. Most of the good ones are “short term pain, long term pleasure” or “taste bitter to eat sweet.” Discipline. Postponing pleasure. The very things we teach our children. Rock biographies always include the excesses of drugs and sex, obviously because the performers are GIVING at a massive level, and must be “Up” on demand night after night. The easy solution is chemicals or flesh. Direct manipulation of the emotions and nervous system. And…the crashes are legendary. So you have to find a way through that maze, to express yourself without destroying the very thing that was the point in the first place: to be happy!
  4. You seek allies and powers. Somewhere along the road, you’ll hopefully notice that there are people who love you, and those who use or abuse or ignore you. Those who have navigated the path healthful, and those lost in the woods themselves, who want you to come get lost with them. Some learn this fast, and others have to go through multiple cycles, and others never learn at all. But through some combination of experiencing and proper teaching, you begin to align your energies with a path that brings you daily joy, but also long-term happiness.
  5. Learning Lessons Does Not End. A primary reality in long-term joy is that our deepest satisfaction comes not from simple selfishness but in SHARING and CONTRIBUTING to loved ones and a larger community. When you can align your daily joy, your long-term joy, and the power of contribution? BINGO.

So…what is the very last image in the film…?


It is of Elton and his husband David Furnish, holding their two children. With a message that Elton has retired from touring to raise those children. I’ll bet they get hugs every day.

THAT is a complete human journey. THAT is generosity of spirit, Elton sharing HIS hard won lessons with the viewer (the last step: “The Student Becomes The Teacher”). Simply grasping that his journey was to find something he always had, namely the capacity to nurture his own heart. From there and ONLY from there can you really let love in without the kind of desperation that prevents a healthy adult interaction.

Loving self

Expanding the sense of self to include others.

THAT was the goal. The journey was learning to understand the goal. Once he actually understood, the shift can happen in an instant…or never. TIME IS NOT A FACTOR. CLARITY IS THE FACTOR.

“Rocketman” is amazing, wonderful, transformative. Honest. Fearless. It is “All That Jazz” level exposure, and for that…I adore it.



(If you would like to try the healing power of that adult-child connection, there are many resources available on the internet, or through your mental health professional. You might also find this resource powerful:

Steven Barnes

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Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts.

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