It’s a rare performer who knows to quit while he’s still ahead. Given his outsized personality and the flamboyance of his ’70s peak—not to mention the alacrity with which many of his British rock confreres hurled themselves into dubious film projects—it’s striking to consider that in a four-decade performing career, Sir Elton John has made only one screen appearance of any substance. But what an appearance it is: rainbow suspenders, rhinestone glasses and all, as the Pinball Wizard, performing The Who song of the same name while locked in a furious pinball duel with Roger Daltrey in the 1975 Ken Russell rock opera Tommy.
He must have known it could only be downhill from there. For all his other extravagances, musical and otherwise, we can perhaps credit the rock legend for the restraint of knowing when one shark, at least, had been well and truly jumped. Since then, Sir Elton has contributed songs to hundreds of movies, many of them composed fresh for the occasion, and, in a career of meteoric highs and abysmal lows, unlike some of his rock contemporaries at least he doesn’t have a particularly smelly filmography to live down. Instead, he’s got a back-catalogue of hits that seem grander and more Zeitgeist-capturing every time they’re discovered by a new generation of filmmakers. In the hands of a skilled editor, an Elton John tune can set the tone of a movie like a giant rhinestone-encrusted tuning fork.
Take Almost Famous, for example, in which the giant rhinestone tuning fork is “Tiny Dancer.” Almost untouched as soundtrack material before Almost Famous, “Tiny Dancer” embarked on a remarkable second life with the success of the movie and all the hold-me-closer-Tony-Danza cracks in the world can’t take away from its splendid and complex resonance in that particular context. Not for its groupie lyrical theme, but for the singalong scene on the Stillwater tour bus, mingled with wistful montage of star-struck teens gazing longingly after the tour bus the morning after an all-night house party.
Buoyed by the song, the scene captures two things perfectly: the afterglow of a gratifying star encounter, residues of which these teenagers will cling to long after the tour bus is out of sight, and the ridiculousness of self-conscious musical stardom generally. Anyone who’s ever been in a rock band will identify with band members’ urge to self-mythologize, now diluted somewhat by their waning nostalgia for the present, and the clichéd grandiosity of it all. Painful as it is, and for as unironically as writer-director Cameron Crowe may have intended it, the “Tiny Dancer” singalong distills this fatuous mess of rock feelings nicely.
Which brings me to something I like to think I would confess to Elton John in person if, like the members of Stillwater, we ever had the ill fortune to be on a plummeting Lear jet together: Dude, it’s horrible what you did with “Candle in the Wind.” I’m not calling your love into question or doubting your good intentions, but how can you take a song that’s explicitly about Marilyn Monroe and suddenly make it about Princess Diana without feeling kind of disingenuous?
Didn’t anybody who bought those 33 million tribute singles think that was a little weird, too? Evidently not, which goes a long way towards explaining the MOR triumph of The Lion King, which produced three Grammy-nominated collaborations between Sir Elton and Tim Rice, including “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Sir Elton was reportedly surprised to learn that his romantic ballad was to be sung between two lions, although he later lobbied hard to have it restored after seeing an early version of the movie from which it had been cut. It’s strange that he would find courting lions surprising, considering one of the other nominated songs (“Hakuna Matata”) gives the back-story of a warthog who has been expelled from polite animal society for his flatulence. Anyway, what is either very surprising or not surprising at all, depending on which era of Elton John one is most familiar with, is the ease with which this tart songwriter was able to produce sanitized, crassly sentimental Disney dross.
So now Tommy again. It’s hard to believe Sir Elton hasn’t turned down movie roles in the 30-plus years since Ken Russell’s cult movie branded him into film-going mind, stomping in his Surrealist-scale Doc Martens, gleefully banging out the power chords to “Pinball Wizard.” But for whatever reason, he hasn’t given audiences many cinematic opportunities to disparage his crossover credibility since losing the pinball duel (on a Gottlieb Kings and Queens machine, by the way; it was Bally that cashed in on John’s performance with a Captain Fantastic machine sporting his Tommy likeness). We’re left with the image of his enormous boots as a cortege in Starlight Mint hats bears him away like a fallen knight. As a valediction for an inchoate acting career, it is a pretty swell image.
Elton John returns to Missoula Friday, April 11, at the Adams Center at 7:30 PM. The show is sold out.