Was Elton John’s Manager John Reid Really Such a Jerk?
“I’ll still be collecting my 20 percent long after you’ve killed yourself.”
Those are words uttered by John Reid to Elton John in the biopic Rocketman. Every film needs a villain and Reid takes that mantle here. The movie paints John’s former manager as cold-hearted and driven purely by money, but what was he like in real life?
Reid’s career in music started several years before he met John. The Scottish-born son of a welder dropped out of school and moved to London in 1969 with dreams of a job in the music business. To that end, he succeeded, when, after a brief stint as a promoter for EMI, he was made U.K. manager of the American Tamla Motown record label.
In Rocketman, Reid and John first meet after the singer’s breakthrough performance in Los Angeles. In actuality, their first encounter happened at a Motown Christmas party. According to the Scottish Daily Record, Reid initially dismissed John as a "dumpy little guy in a funny jumpsuit." “When I met Elton, I didn’t even realize his potential,” Reid admitted during a 1998 interview. “I’ve never claimed to have discovered him. In fact, when he suggested I should manage him, I wasn’t enthusiastic.”
Still, there was a “gawky sweetness" that attracted Reid to John. The two would soon become romantic, with the Scotsman signing on to be the singer’s manager.
“I was his first boyfriend, and we lived together as lovers for five years,” Reid recalled decades later. “He was my first great love and I was his. I went on to become his manager of 25 years.”
The five years that Reid and John were romantically involved were also some of the most prolific in the music icon’s career. From 1970 to 1975, John emerged as a worldwide superstar with hits like “Your Song,” “Daniel,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Bennie and the Jets.” The two were living together through this entire period, which Reid described as quite a roller-coaster.
“The vast leaps in style were exhausting,” he said of John’s continually changing appearance. “He would go out one day with brown hair and return the next with pink.”
The singer was also enjoying the lavish extravagances that come with stardom. “One day he drove off in his Escort and I said it wasn’t very rock 'n' roll,” Reid recalled. “He returned that afternoon with a purple Aston Martin.”
In the film, the couple’s extravagant lifestyle, along with Reid’s infidelity, ultimately leads to a tumultuous breakup. However, the manager has stated previously that he and John split on good terms because the singer “never had a sexual adolescence. He needed to go off and play the field, which he did with gusto.”
While the movie depicts the end of their romance as the close of the duo's relationship, Reid and John actually remained inseparable professional partners long after dating.
One particularly powerful scene in Rocketman features an enraged Reid hitting John after the singer showed up late to a performance. While no evidence corroborates that this moment actually took place, Reid’s temper was a real-life problem. In a 1974 Rolling Stone article, a former employee describes the manager as “diminutive, but he’s a killer. He’ll punch anyone.” The characterization seems reinforced by a long list of notable incidents.
Reid once threw a glass of champagne at a man for not having enough liquor at a reception for John, he slapped a female journalist who reportedly called him a “poof," he was charged with assault in New Zealand after beating and kicking a journalist, he was arrested in San Francisco after hitting a hotel doorman with his cane while waiting for a car and he allegedly beat another journalist the day after John’s 1984 wedding to Renate Blauel in Sydney, where Reid was the best man. “They’re isolated incidents,” the manager once said of his outbursts. “I don’t make excuses, I’m not particularly proud of it, but any time anything like this has happened, it’s been in defense of Elton or Bernie [Taupin], not for personal reasons.”
Between 1975 and 1978, Reid took on an additional high-profile client, British rock band Queen. In the film Bohemian Rhapsody, Reid is fired for suggesting Freddie Mercury embark on a solo career. The real-life split was far more amicable. “We had a good working relationship with John,” Roger Taylor said of Reid in the 2011 Queen documentary Days of Our Lives. “He was very fiery and very feisty, but so were we.”
Reid remained John’s manager for nearly three decades, until the two had a falling out in 1998. A battle over finances brought both parties to court, where John accused Reid of negligence and breach of duty with millions of the singer’s fortune. “I trusted him,” John said during testimony in court. “I never thought he would betray me but he has betrayed me.” The court ruled against John, though Reid reportedly paid the star a seven-figure out-of-court settlement.
Despite their messy parting of ways, Reid maintained pride in their partnership. “I’m fond of Elton and proud of the work we did together,” Reid was quoted as saying in the Scottish Daily Record. “One day I’ll bump into him and there may be hugs and kisses. Or maybe not.”
Much like he did when Bohemian Rhapsody was released, Reid has remained quiet regarding his depiction in Rocketman. The former manager has avoided the limelight for many years now, last appearing in the public eye in 2005 during a brief stint as a judge on the Australian version of X Factor.
Still, that hasn’t stopped others from criticizing the film’s accuracy. Veteran British singer-songwriter Mike Batt recently said of Rocketman, “The whole film is a lie. Disgusting dishonesty that should be called out.”
He pointed to the depiction of Reid as especially callous, saying that the "portrayal as an uncaring sex-god manipulator is weapons-grade character assassination.”