Elton John seemed on top of the world as he commanded a crowd of 50,000 fans during his first of two dates at L.A’s Dodger Stadium on Oct. 25, 1975. The weather, like seemingly everything else in the 28-year old’s life, was perfect as he vaulted across the stage, managing handstands on his keyboard while belting out hits like “Bennie and the Jets,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” Sunshine danced off his spangled custom-made Dodgers jersey, emblazoned with an appropriate team number: “1.” Earlier that week, his new album Rock of the Westies topped the charts, just like his last six, and 2% of all records sold on the planet bore his name. Officials had declared it Elton John Week in Hollywood and honored him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now flesh and blood stars like Cary Grant and Billie Jean King watched as John became the first person to rock the arena since the Beatles nine years earlier.
His mother, stepfather and neighbors were also in the crowd, ferried over by John on private jet for the occasion. They were among the few who knew that just two days before, he had swallowed a bottle of tranquilizers. “I shall die within the hour,” he announced to a crowd of friends and family, including his grandmother, who was on her first trip to the States. Then he hurled himself into a swimming pool and waited for the end to come, or for someone to save him — whichever occurred first. “It was stress,” John told the Telegraph in 2010. “I’d been working nonstop for five years. But it was typical me. There was no way I was going to kill myself doing that. And, of course, my grandmother came out with the perfect line: ‘I suppose we’ve all got to go home now.”
Paramedics fished him from the water and pumped the poison out of his stomach. The show went on, as it always did, but the cost was becoming increasingly apparent to those around him. “I was at the height of my ‘can’t do anything wrong’ thing, and yet my personal life was very unhappy,” John told VH1 in 2000. He would characterize the act as a cry for help. It was like, ‘Look at me, I’m really unhappy. Can you do something about it? Because if you don’t, I’m going to be dead.’”
The jarring incident forms an emotional pillar of Rocketman, the new biopic starring 29-year-old Taron Egerton as the music legend. Directed by Bohemian Rhapsody veteran Dexter Fletcher and produced by John’s husband David Furnish, the “based on a true fantasy” film blends flamboyant Bob Fosse-meets-Las Vegas-meets-Busby Berkeley musical numbers with gritty drama, evoking both the public and private sides of rock’s greatest showman. The unique blend underscores the turmoil behind the glitter, particularly at the moment of what should have been his greatest triumph. “That iconic Dodger Stadium performance is a part of rock history,” says Egerton. “But the truth of the matter is 48 hours before he went on stage, he swallowed a bunch of pills and he threw himself into his swimming pool. He wasn’t well. I think it’s such an incredible thing for someone to go from such a low ebb to such titanic, gargantuan success. He had to park his troubles and go be Elton John.”
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More than just a story of survival, Rocketman is ultimately a love story between one man and himself. Born Reggie Dwight in 1947, the shy boy from the London suburb of Pinner reinvented himself as one of the most successful, and unlikeliest, celebrities in the world. But the blinding spotlight of fame cast dark shadows that lingered through John’s life for years to come. Crucially, it exacerbated feelings of insecurity stemming from his years growing up with a cold, disinterested father, a former RAF Flight Lieutenant Stanley Dwight. “He was a very unhappy lonely child, only child,” says Furnish. John would recall his father as a man who rarely showed him affection or even interest — particularly in his music. “I never had his approval,” he told PEOPLE in 2008. “My mother had letters from him saying, ‘He’ll never become a star.'” Stanley would never attend any of his son’s concerts; John didn’t attend his funeral when he died in 1991.
Ironically, just a few months prior to diving into his Hollywood swimming pool, John scored a Top 10 hit with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a song that recounted an earlier suicide attempt that took place in 1968. At the time he was engaged to a woman named Linda — a period he described as “very stormy” in later years. “We’d made the cake and bought the furniture,” he told PEOPLE in 1978. Feeling trapped by the situation, he half-heartedly tried to take his own life. His cowriter and best friend, Bernie Taupin, found him with his head resting on a pillow in the kitchen oven. “It was a very Woody Allen-type suicide. I turned on the gas and left all the windows open.” The scene was so patently absurd that Taupin couldn’t help but laugh. Much like his poolside antics nearly a decade later, John would admit that the incident was less of a suicide attempt and more a desperate appeal for salvation. His malaise was palpable to his former bandmate Long John Baldry (from whom John would borrow his surname). Over drinks at London’s hip Bag o’ Nails club, Baldry — who correctly surmised that John was, like himself, gay — gave him the obvious advice: Don’t marry her. “If you marry this woman, you’ll destroy two lives: yours and hers,” he insisted. After stumbling home in the early morning hours, John broke the news to his fiancée and the relationship was over.
The intimate song that came from the romantic debacle featured lyrics penned by Taupin, channeling the pain of his musical ally. “’Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ is a life lesson,” he tells PEOPLE. “It’s how friendship can save you in a fleeting moment. There were many of those.”
The song was first released on the 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, an album that became the first LP to debut at No. 1 on Billboard. Despite adoration of millions, and overwhelming success on practically every level, the lonely child inside never left him. “Being onstage was very comfortable for me,” he admitted in the 2007 documentary Me, Myself and I. “Being offstage was not.” To overcome his insecurities and live up to the rock star character he had created, he turned to cocaine. “It gave me confidence, and I took it initially to join in and be part of the gang,” he added. “I was quite a shy person and I found it made me verbose and relaxed and could join in. [It] took all of my inhibitions away.” To help calm down after a night of using, he would balance it out with alcohol. For a man prone to extremes, this spelled disaster. “It became this vicious circle of drugs, alcohol, marijuana, bulimia.”
As recreational use rapidly morphed into abuse, those closest to John began to keep their distance. His romantic relationship with boyfriend John Reid — who also acted as his manager — disintegrated, and ultimately even his mother moved to Spain in an effort to separate herself from the increasingly lurid tabloid headlines about her boy. “The worst things about taking drugs and your friends is that you isolate them,” he recalled in a 2000 interview with Michael Parkinson. “You hang around with people who aren’t your real friends and they’re just sponging off you. Someone in my position, who’s quite wealthy, would buy all the drugs or provide all the booze. And my dearest friends, who still work for me, did tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. I didn’t want to hear their views anymore so I shut them out of my life and just listened to the sycophants who I was hanging around with.”
Increasingly alone, John spent most of the ‘80s in the grips of his addiction, recalling only a “complete and utter blur.” He began to suffer seizures as a result of his cocaine use. Associates would find him blue on the floor and help him to bed — only to discover him snorting lines a short while later. At one point, he was using every four minutes. “I would only know how to be ‘Elton.’ I wouldn’t know how to live off stage. There was no balance in my life,” he said in 2010. “The self-loathing I had, walking around the house, not bathing for three or four days, staying up watching pornography all the time, drinking a bottle of scotch a day. And I was bulimic as well, so I wouldn’t eat for three days, then gorge on six bacon sandwiches and a pint of ice cream and throw it up. And then have a shower and start the whole procedure all over again.” Flying across Europe on his private jet, he’d look down at the snow-white peaks of the Alps and think, “That’s like all the cocaine I’d ever sniffed.”
For more on Elton John’s astonishing rise to fame and new biopic Rocketman, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands Friday.
The 1990 death of Ryan White, a young AIDS victim whom John befriended, helped put his life in perspective. “Your life is totally and completely out of order. You are a selfish pig,” he recalled thinking during a 1999 interview on 60 Minutes. “It was the bottom for me, the bottom to realize how low I had become.” After years of denial, he was finally ready to confront the fact that he had a problem. “I was going to make the decision that I was going to get sober or I was going to die. And I didn’t want to die.” On July 29, 1990, he checked himself into Chicago’s Parkside Lutheran Hospital. Taupin paid him a visit and listened tearfully as John read a farewell letter written to his “worst best friend,” cocaine: “You are my whore, I love you so much, but I can never see you again.”
Today, John’s real-life happy ending pales in comparison to anything Hollywood could conjure up. Twenty-nine years sober, he used his new lease on life to start the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised over $400 million towards fighting the disease. This December also marks the fifth wedding anniversary with Furnish, his partner of 25 years, with whom he shares sons Zachary, 8, and Elijah, 6. “My sobriety has brought me everything that I could possibly wish for,” he reflected in 2004. Now 72, he’s surrounded by love all around him — and also from within. Healing the rift between Sir Elton Hercules John and little Reggie Dwight brought him the peace that had eluded him for so long.
He sings of his hard-won happiness in a new song composed for Rocketman, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” performed as a duet with his big screen alter ego, Egerton. With lyrics by Taupin, it can be seen as a jubilant sequel to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” — a jubilant ode to self-acceptance and the relief that it brings.
The golden age was somehow bittersweet
But now the past lies sleeping in the deep
The peaceful days that followed hollow nights
A kiss or touch could feel like Kryptonite
Praise the saints that hung up on my wall
For trust is left in lovers after all
A whispered word emerging from a tale
My wake up call to claim the cursed spell
And I’m gonna love me again.