I remember when reality TV was young, the Osbournes had so much fun throwing hams at people and picking up dog poop. I did not, however, remember that Elton John had a pivotal role in the inception of the genre, specifically that which is focused on the lives of celebrities. But such is his claim in his compulsively entertaining 2019 memoir, Me. He writes that the documentary about his life and 1995 tour, Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras, “spawned that whole genre of reality TV where you see into a celebrity’s life, or worse, someone who’s become a celebrity for being on reality TV.” He continues:
You know, it’s not exactly the most edifying thing having Being Bobby Brown and The Anna Nicole Show on your conscience. There’s a sense in which Keeping Up with the Kardashians might ultimately be my fault, for which I can only prostrate myself before the human race and beg their forgiveness.
In fact, John says that his only regret about doing the supposedly warts-and-all doc is “how influential it became.” His then-boyfriend, future-husband David Furnish shot the 75-minute Tantrums on Hi-8 camcorders and the result certainly does have the utilitarian, no-frills visual aesthetic that reality TV would adopt. Having aired on television in the UK in July 1996, and then the following year on Cinemax on the U.S., it certainly did, in retrospect, bridge the gap between the cinematic likes of Madonna: Truth or Dare and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. Such commodification of the mundanity of celebrity life was probably inevitable, given culture’s perpetually increasing obsession with fame and the reality TV proliferation that was already underway (MTV’s The Real World began airing in 1992). John was just an early settler on eventually colonized land. If nothing else, Tantrums is a key entry in the pop star doc subgenre, though the film has largely been swallowed up by time (it seems to be out of print, and most importantly, it’s not streaming anywhere in the U.S., at least). It’s better than Katy Perry’s take on the rock doc, at any rate.
Its title promises Tantrums & Tiaras but the movie has too few of either by 2020's standards, which count bad behavior and drag as reality TV norms. But the tantrums that it does contain—over John’s disdain for recording music videos and as the result of a fan calling out, “Yoohoo!,” to him while he played tennis in the south of France on holiday, for example—are fun, as is John’s needlessly scathing critique of the flower-arranging industry (“It’s just a hideous profession”). They’re all included in this highlights reel that I cut together:
Elsewhere, there’s footage of John accepting his Oscar for The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” an interview of dubious ethics with John’s therapist who claims the star buys people’s affection, a disconcertingly candid interview with his mother (“I don’t think he liked you very much,” she tells John of his father), a tour of his Woodside estate, his last meeting with his grandmother before she died, and too-brief shots of John cavorting with his superstar peers.
The mission of Tantrums is stated early on during an interview with John. “I think maybe it would be nice to let the public know a little bit more about me,” he says. In his memoir, he uses the doc as a jumping-off point to bemoan the way media training can sanitize celebrities of their personality. “I wasn’t afraid about people seeing the monstrous, unreasonable side of me,” he writes. “I’m perfectly aware how ridiculous my life is, and perfectly aware of what an arsehole I look like when I lose my temper over nothing—I go from nought to nuclear in seconds and then calm down just as quickly.”
Furnish said that only twice during filming did John ask him to turn off his camera and according to a Press Association report from 1996, “The only elements he and producers decided should be cut were Elton’s brilliantly catty comments about other people ‘because that would not have been fair,’ he said.” It also wouldn’t have been flattering to John, whose tantrums and binge-shopping can be seen as low-stakes eccentricities from a legend who has earned his quirks. In fact, after reading his memoir and watching this doc, I think of John as a quintessential veteran diva, someone whose persona has ripened deliciously over the years. And though John, somewhat obliviously, discusses in Tantrums how his feelings of inadequacy and insecurity have informed his hatred of filming music videos (“I’m not someone who has a very strong visual image,” said a performer who previously donned a Donald Duck costume onstage), he ultimately adored his reflection. By 1996 had watched it some 20 times according to Furnish.
“I’d have liked it to go on a bit longer,” John says in a segment tacked on to the end of Tantrums, after he’d already viewed the finished product. “I wanted to see more. I just found it really funny.” Spoken like a true diva.