Thursday, April 21, 2011
The Union Doco Opens at Tribeca - Coming Soon to HBO
Thousands of viewers dropped by the namesake neighboorhood for a free outdoor screening of Cameron Crowe’s The Union, a world-premiere documentary about the rekindled musical relationship between Elton John and his chief influence, songwriter/bandleader Leon Russell. Sir Elton himself introduced the film, standing in for Crowe (who cheerfully sent his video regards along with Matt Damon, a capuchin monkey, and the rest of the gang on the set of his upcoming film We Bought a Zoo) and Russell (whose own video salutation was a little more subdued but no less earnest). He later performed a brief set mixing classics like an epic version of “Rocket Man” with tracks from The Union, last year’s John/Russell collaboration from which Crowe’s doc takes its title.
“When we made this movie, we just wanted to document a special occasion of getting someone who hadn’t made a record in a long, long time,” John explained, referring to Russell. “Cameron wanted to film the process and see how it went, and see how Leon would be and how I would be — because Leon was my idol. We just started off doing it, really, for our own use. But as the story grew, and as Leon came out of his shell and came back to life, we knew we had something a little special. And here we are at Tribeca. I can’t believe it. I’m so honored — and I’m so frightened. I haven’t seen the movie.”
He had nothing to be afraid of. The Union is at once a tasteful, evocative portrait of musicians at work and a revelatory deconstruction of Russell’s myth. Flirting periodically with hagiography (jeez, Stevie Nicks, are you visiting the studio to kiss Russell’s ring or kiss his ass?), Crowe knows just when to dial down the fanboy zeal and really dig into his subjects — mostly with no more sophisticated technique than standing back and simply bearing witness. The results strip away the glamour of rock lifestyles — particularly that of Elton John, for whom a twilight quest to get back to basics meant more than just ditching slick, platinum-record pretension. It meant channeling some primal spirit that went dormant decades ago, right around the time Elton the Showman began playing piano with the heels of his platform shoes. “I didn’t really know what to do next,” he says in The Union’s opening frames. “I still had the energy of a teenager but didn’t know what to do with it.”
Ultimately Russell was that primal spirit, looking and speaking the part with his flowing white hair and beard and such unassuming admissions as, “Those true songs are easier to write than the not-so-true ones — the ones without any substance. […] I love true songs.” So does Sir Elton, apparently: He breaks down during the song in question, “In the Hands of Angels,” a gorgeous, lilting ballad Russell conceived while recovering from surgery to correct a near-fatal brain condition. Ingeniously, Crowe constructs a split-screen panorama between the songwriters; one camera keeps watch on Russell’s simple catharsis while the other trails a tearful John out of the control room.
It’s deeply affecting stuff, and The Union is full of little captivations just like it. A guest vocal by Brian Wilson sparks a longer exploration of Russell’s prolific ’60s session work on albums by everybody from the Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin, capped by Wilson and Russell’s brief, strange encounter on the street outside the studio. Easy come, easy go, the scene suggests, but nothing is more difficult (or more important, for that matter) than reclaiming one’s sense of artistic direction. In doing so, however, Russell hints that he never lost it in the first place: Straining to come up with a fittingly groovy background vocal arrangement for “Monkey Suit,” Sir Elton, producer T-Bone Burnett and their session singers defer to Russell, who intones within seconds the “shoop shoop a dilly willy” that solves their problem on the spot.
Crowe weaves a few illuminating interstitials throughout the recording footage, mostly career comparisons heavy on archival footage and John’s ruminations about stardom and obscurity. By 2010, though — just as the album The Union is rocketing up the Billboard charts and the duo is shown taking its songs on the road — the documentary The Union begins to lose both focus and steam. For a film about the purity of process and collaboration, it spends a little too much time and energy emphasizing the scope of John’s generosity and Russell’s renaissance. After all, the former is never more clear than when Crowe depicts the evolution of the latter. Finding them onstage at the Beacon Theater, where a worshipful capacity crowd cheers and dances to their hard-wrought roots rock, is kind of just rubbing it in — especially after hearing Sir Elton declaim repeatedly how he’s done concerning himself with market whims. (Lowering his expectations, he says he’d be “ecstatic” if the album’s first week of sales put it in the top 10; it hit number three.)
Still, the sincerity of purpose with which he and Crowe launched this whole project — itself quite the artistic teaming — more than balances out any false modesty or loose narrative flesh. The Union is a success if only because it had a whole riverfront terrace full of New Yorkers walking away saying, “Wow. Leon Russell, huh?” Whatever Elton John’s emotional payoff, that’s the film both Russell and Tribeca needed more than anything at this point in their histories. Here’s to many more.
- Movie Line
In Cameron Crowe‘s very moving and informational documentary, “The Union,” I learned a lot about both of its subjects, Leon Russell and Elton John. The 10th annual Tribeca Film Festival opened with an outdoor showing of “The Union,” followed by a live set –in the freezing cold–by Sir Elton himself. But wait, in the movie we learned that Leon Russell, rock’s bad boy of the early Seventies, doesn’t know what a “high five” is. “That’s something from sports, isn’t it?”
We also learned that his record company has begged Elton to do a Christmas album or a theme album–like all Motown songs–for years. “I won’t do it,” he says. “That’s not me.” Instead he made “The Union,” my favorite album since it was released last November, with his own hero, Leon Russell. Crowe, director of “Almost Famous” and “Say Anything,” directed it.
And last night it opened the festival on a joyous New York night that was open to the public but had its share of celebrities with people like Scott Glenn, Griffin Dunne, David O. Russell, Anna Kendrick, Julian Schnabel with Rula Jebreal, the Olsen twins, Lauren Hutton, Bob Balaban, Zoe Kravitz, rock jewelry designer Loree Rodkin (who’s writing a book about her life in Hollywood folks–look out) and the album’s producer, T Bone Burnett. The extra special guest was Bernie Taupin, Elton’s longtime lyricist, and the guy who thought of the term “Crocodile Rock.”
Jane Rosenthal, who started the Film Festival right after September 11, 2001, gave opening remarks and then introduced Martin Scorsese, who got thunderous applause across the plaza behind the World Financial Center in Battery Park Plaza–the same place that was once a landfill and was home to the legendary No Nukes concert of 1979. Rosenthal, husband Craig Hatkoff, and Robert DeNiro gave the area a much needed shot of adrenalin after 9-11. Now it’s packed with office buildings and apartment houses, more popular than ever.
But back to the show: Rosenthal introduced Elton, and after the show he performed two songs from “The Union,” plus “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” He was by himself, playing piano, and sounding way too good for a musician who told the audience: “I’m like a freezing cold lollipop.” Russell, he told us, wasn’t there because he’s on tour in Australia since Elton revived his career. “He’s got a bus, and some money,” Elton said proudly.
PS You’ll be able to see “The Union” soon–my sources say a deal is all but done with HBO, as it should be.