Surrounded by the after-hours glow of Lower Manhattan skyscrapers and buffeted by winds rolling in off of New York Harbor, Elton John wrapped up the opening night of the tenth annual Tribeca Film Festival with performances of such evergreen Elton classics as “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man” and “Your Song.”
His solo piano performance followed the world premiere of Cameron Crowe’s The Union, a music documentary that followed Sir John and legendary rock pianist Leon Russell as the two Rock Hall of Famers recorded an album together last year.
The Union turned out to be a pleasantly affecting surprise. What could have merely been a music doc about two aging rockers recording a late-career album was instead a heartfelt, decades-belated love letter from Elton John to his early career idol and one of his greatest influences, Leon Russell. Plus, it was fun to watch the flick sitting behind a group that included the uncommonly talented actors Anna Kendrick (Twilight, Up in the Air), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), and Zoe Kazan (It’s Complicated). Kendrick’s eyes were glued to the screen while Dano and Kazan were smoochily glued to each other—that’s what the PortaPotties are there for, you crazy kids!)
Elton and Leon toured together in the early ’70s but apparently hadn’t seen each other since. So it was no surprise that without much more than a phone call to renew their association, the initial scenes of the film show a stoic, flattered but reticent Russell interacting with an excited, nervous and creatively deferential Elton John.
According to Captain Fantastic, Leon Russell influenced his piano playing and music writing more than any other artist—and this was after he astoundingly told the cameras he thought there were “50 or 60” pianists who influenced him over the years. But it makes sense: if you listen to Russell’s rollicking yet masterfully-arranged first few albums, it is hard to imagine Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection or Honky Chateau existing without Russell’s mash-up of country, blues and early rock ‘n’ roll.
Over the course of their collaborative recording sessions—which seemed to favor Russell’s sound while placing John in the role of creative coordinator—Leon began to thaw out and as Elton put it, “come to life again.” John was even more to tears at one point as he witnesses Russell’s effortless, emotionally honest composition process.
In spite of an emergency five-hour brain surgery that put their sessions on hold for ten days, the magnificently-bearded Russell seemed twice as lively and engaged in the world as the recording process and documentary came to a close.
Ultimately, Cameron Crow’s The Union is a lovely and simple thing: it’s about one of rock’s most respected icons using his enormous celebrity to orchestrate a long-overdue reappraisal of his musical icon and one of the pivotal, under-appreciated voices in rock songwriting.
In case you aren’t jetting to New York to catch an upcoming screening of The Union, here are some of the film’s highlights:
While explaining how he has accepted that his records will never sell like they used to, he opined that perhaps Michael Jackson’s consuming drive to top Thriller “was part of his problem.” This is paraphrasing, but he said something like, “It’s all well and good Michael, but you’re never going to outsell Thriller… to make a better record, that’s another matter.”
Stevie Nicks dropped in to tell Leon that after she and Lindsey Buckingham opened for him as part of the band Fritz in the early ’70s, “That’s when the two of us thought, ‘That’s it. We’re gonna go to LA. We’re gonna do it.”
Leon Russell cleared up some of the history around one of the Carpenters’ signature hit “Superstar,”which he initially co-wrote for his Mad Dogs and Englishman tour mate Rita Coolidge. According to Russell, he overhead Coolidge refer to Dionne Warwick as a “superstar.” The word, new to him, caught his attention and inspired him to write the song for Coolidge.
Elton John on arriving in the U.S. in 1970: “I imagined Los Angeles to be exactly like The Beverly Hillbillies. Which, of course, it was.”
Elton John on Leon Russell: “He never takes a bad picture. But when you look like God, I suppose you don’t.”
Although he’s said it before, it’s still astonishing to hear that in over 40 years, lyricist Bernie Taupin has never been in the room when Elton puts melodies to Taupin’s words.
When asked which of his early songs he wishes were given more attention today, Elton cited “Friends,” the title track to the soundtrack for a forgotten 1971 British film of the same name.