From his mother Sheila Farebrother to grandmother Ivy Sewell and ex-wife Renate Blauel, this is the reality of the singer’s relationships with the women in his world, as seen in the movie Rocketman.
Reid, a slimy, slick-haired man with an awful sex appeal, is pressuring John to come out to his mother sooner rather than later. John, racked with guilt, doesn’t want to go breaking his mother’s heart. But after a long, perilous swig of whisky he jumps from the car and dials his mother’s flat in Pinner. “I’m a homosexual,” he chokes out, tears leaking from his eyes in the powerful scene from the biopic.
“I know,” his mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas-Howard) whispers back, face impassive, before telling her son to keep that news to himself. “You’re choosing a life of being alone forever,” she adds. “You’ll never be loved properly.”
The scene is a heartbreaking one whose message runs through Rocketman like a thread. For a long time, John believed that nobody would ever love him properly. When those that he did love, from Reid to his mother and even his best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) rejected him, or were perceived to reject him, John turned to the dangerous coping mechanisms of drink, drugs, bulimia and sex.
Unlike many rock’n’roll movies, though, the story has a happy ending. John checks himself into rehab and has been sober for almost three decades. In 1993 he met David Furnish, his now-husband. The pair have been married for 14 years and have two sons together.
But, in many ways, Rocketman investigates the singer’s relationships with the three most important women in his life – his mother Sheila, his grandmother Ivy and his ex-wife Renate Blauel. This is the true story of those three relationships.
Who was Elton John’s mum Sheila Farebrother?
In Rocketman, John and his mother Sheila Farebrother have a strained relationship, courtesy of John’s difficult childhood and the pair’s fraught dealings with John’s father Stanley Dwight.
Farebrother gave birth to John – then known as Reginald Dwight – on 25 March 1947, but she split from his father when John was a teenager. She would later marry Fred Farebrother, who went on to become stepfather to John.
How accurate was Rocketman’s portrayal of Sheila Farebrother? It’s hard to say. The film depicts Farebrother as a woman who, at times, was self-obsessed and vindictive towards her young son who craved the love of his parents. While Farebrother is seen involving the young John in her pasttimes, such as dressmaking, Rocketman also shows a side of her as a neglectful and spiteful parent.
Later in the film John and Farebother’s relationship completely disintegrates. At a dinner at a swanky restaurant in London, Farebrother asks for money to purchase a holiday house in Spain, which leads to a blistering argument. Farebrother says that becoming mother to John was the greatest disappointment of her life, to which John fires back: “You really are a heartless bitch!”
The fraught relationship between mother and son was one of the reasons that Howard was initially reticent to take on the role. “It was a very bad, toxic, damaging relationship,” Howard has said. “I think she definitely didn’t get him. More than that, she was a deeply unhappy person. He was raised in a household as an only child, not shown love and affection. If there’s that void, it’s a difficult thing for him to fill.”
In reality, John and his mother didn’t speak for eight years after one particular “petty” argument in 2008. The feud began when John asked Farebrother to sever contact with John’s former associates Bob Halley and the aforementioned Reid, but Farebrother refused.
“I told him: ‘I’m not about to do that and drop them. Bob is like a son to me. He has always been marvellous to me and he lives nearby and keeps an eye on me,’” Farebrother told The Daily Mail. “Then to my utter amazement, he told me he hated me. And then he banged the phone down. Imagine! To me, his mother!”
According to Farebrother, the argument escalated, with John accusing his mother of thinking more about Halley than him. “And to that I said to him, ‘And you think more of that fucking thing you married than your own mother,” Farebrother told The Daily Mail, in reference to Furnish.
Farebrother died in 2017, but not before her and John had patched over their disagreements. Before she died, John paid £30,000 for his mother to have a double hip replacement surgery. “So sad to say that my mother passed away this morning,” John wrote at the time on Twitter. “I only saw her last Monday and I am in shock. Travel safe mum. Thank you for everything. I will miss you so much. Love, Elton.”
But after Farebrother’s death it was revealed that she had willed most of her estate to Halley, according to documents drawn up weeks before her death.
And what about John? This is the only mention of him in Farebrother’s will: “I give to my son Elton John free of all taxes my two Batignani blue/gold urns and my photographs of mother in uniform and grandfather in uniform.”
Who is Ivy Sewell, Elton John’s grandmother?
Where Farebrother was often cold and distant, John’s grandmother Ivy Sewell (Gemma Jones) was a nurturing presence for her grandson. In Rocketman, Ivy is the one person who encourages John as a young boy, taking him to his piano lessons at the Royal Academy – slipping him change for a bag of crisps and the bus home – as well as advocating for him to both of his parents.
John was close to his grandmother his whole life, and her death in 1995 – well into her 90s – was a blow to the singer, who was on tour for his Made in England album at the time. Sewell was cremated, with her ashes scattered over John’s estate and that year, when John won an Oscar for Best Original Song for Can You Feel The Love Tonight? From The Lion King, the singer paid tribute to his nan.
“I’d like to dedicate this award to my grandmother,” John said during his acceptance speech. “She died last week, and she was the one who sat me down at the piano when I was three and made me play.”
John has commemorated his grandmother in other ways, too. In the 2018 John Lewis Christmas advertisement, a young John is seen bashing away at the ivories on his first piano. This scene, John said, was inspired by the first time he played on his grandmother’s instrument.
“The John Lewis Christmas campaign has so many warm memories for me and my family,” John wrote in a statement. “It’s been a lovely opportunity for me to reflect on my life in music and the incredible journey I have been on, and how first playing my grandmother’s piano marks the moment when music came into my life.”
Who is Renate Blauel, Elton John’s wife?
In Rocketman, Renate Blauel (Celine Shoenmaker) is the German sound engineer who connects with John in the studio. While others in his life are abandoning him – Taupin, Reid, his mother – Blauel sees through John’s pain and understands his loneliness.
John, despite being gay, responds to their connection and the pair are instantly married in a colourful church ceremony in the next scene. Rocketman immediately cuts to a later date, with footage of the Johns emerging from separate bedrooms and sharing a strained breakfast before Blauel bursts into tears. In the next scene, John tells his mother that he’s getting a divorce.
“Renate didn’t deserve that,” John says. “I dragged her into all my madness.”
“Poor Renate,” Farebrother replies. “Divorce can be so awful. Anyway…”
While Blauel and John’s marriage is a very, very brief footnote to Rocketman, in reality the relationship between the pair lasted for five years, They met in 1983 when Blauel was drafted in to work on John’s Too Low For Zero album. When the singer was touring the record in Australia, Blauel accompanied him in secret. On 10 February John proposed over a chicken curry dinner at an Indian restaurant. They told the media the next day and tied the knot three days after that at St Mark’s, Darling Point in Sydney.
John wore a purple and white striped shirt and matching lilac bow tie with a silver coat that reportedly cost £1,000. Blauel’s wedding dress was made of white silk and lace, worn with a heart-shaped pendant necklace studded with 63 glittering diamonds.
The marriage disintegrated in 1988, and the pair have been estranged ever since. In Rocketman, John concedes that the marriage had not been a happy one. (“Not really,” he tells his therapist. “I’m gay.”) Behind the scenes, he was struggling with his sexual identity and with substance abuse.
“A drug addict thinks like this: ‘I’ve had enough boyfriends, and that’s not made me happy, so I’ll have a wife – that will change everything.’” John has said. “And I loved Renate. She’s a great girl. I really, really loved her. But you know… it is one of the things I regret most in my life, hurting her.”
It is true that the split left Blauel heartbroken. According to John, she had not been in touch since their break up. “We haven’t been in touch, we’ve had no contact at all which is very sad, but she wants it that way,” John said in the documentary Tantrums and Tiaras. “I don’t have any negative things to say about her at all.”
According to locals in the Surrey village where Blauel lived before she returned to Germany to care for her elderly parents, she still mourned the breakdown of her relationship.
“We don’t mention Elton’s name because we know it still upsets her,” Maxine Knight told The Daily Mirror. “She’s as reluctant to talk about that time in private as she is in public. The warmth she’s found in the village has helped her get back on her feet.”
John has spoken about Blauel only a few times in the intervening years since their split. One was during that documentary, and another was when Australia was in the throes of the country’s campaign to legalise same sex marriage in 2017, which passed in November of that year.
While the debate raged, John shared an image on Instagram of his marriage to Furnish with a caption that touched on the important role Australia has played in his romantic life over the years.
“Many years ago, I chose Australia for my wedding to a wonderful woman for whom I have so much love and admiration,” he wrote. “I wanted more than anything to be a good husband, but I denied who I really was, which caused my wife sadness, and caused me huge guilt and regret. To be worthy of someone’s love, you have to be brave enough and clear eyed enough to be honest with yourself and your partner.”
Rocketman is in cinemas now.