Tribeca Review: Cameron Crowe's Elton John/Leon Russell Documentary THE UNION

rating: 4

The tenth anniversary of the New York-bred Tribeca Film Festival opened Wednesday night with a screening of The Union, the Cameron Crowe-directed documentary charting the collaboration between Sir Elton John and Leon Russell€wait a minute, who? The Union and Sir Elton make no qualms about Mr. Russell€™s modern-day anonymity and the musical project is frankly stated to be Elton€™s way of paying his dues, of bringing a man who inspired him to greatness into the studio and recording €œnot an Elton John album, but an Elton John/Leon Russell album€. With Cameron Crowe€™s cameras as a mostly silent observer, The Union is a tender look at the making of the album and the relationship that blossoms between two greats, one known the world over and the other coming to life in the course of the project. With silver hair and a lengthy white beard, Leon Russell cuts an intimidating figure, even as the sexagenarian ambles into the recording studio where Elton John and producer (and star in his own right) T-Bone Burnett warmly greet him. At first contributing few words and less momentum, Russell remains hard to read and The Union gets off to a rocky start. The first 20-odd minutes of the film are a bit of a turn-off but as the career musicians roll up their sleeves and dive into the album, Crowe captures some indelible and gentle details of Elton and Leon€™s developing friendship. Elton claims that Russell has been the biggest influence on his piano playing, bar none €“ and treats the man with a mixture of awe and warm enthusiasm. The contrast is striking €“ here is Elton John, given free reign to pursue his creative musings, and Leon Russell, seemingly making a living touring occasionally across the heartland. I will admit that I did not know who Russell was prior to the documentary and if there€™s one minor fault The Union possesses, it€™s that I still can€™t surely gauge the man€™s impact on music. Russell barely mentions his background and the camera often turns to Elton, who is only too happy to fill us in on back-story of Leon Russell, the superstar that was. Why Russell didn€™t burn brighter is never addressed, but it is clear that this album is a chance for the world at large to get to know an enigmatic man. The best moments of the film are undoubtedly the actual music performances €“ Crowe gets unfettered access to the recording sessions and the wrinkles that accompany them. It€™s a genuine joy to watch the multitude of talent that steps in to deliver vocals or solos, including an arrestingly strange Brian Wilson, whose brief meeting with Russell is a highlight. Crowe knows he€™s found the heart of the film pretty early on €“ when Russell sits down to compose €œIn The Hands Of Angels€, his tribute to Elton, who attempts to hold it together but gets choked up in no time and retreats out of the studio to shed a few tears. Perhaps following him and catching those tears on film is disrespectful to some, but I found the scene very touching and true to the film€™s approach €“ The Union comes to you with an open heart and succeeds because of just that. There€™s nothing groundbreaking about the film, but in keeping a comfortable distance from the musicians while giving them time to get personal on camera, Crowe delivers a fitting tribute to this partnership and a choice documentary at that. The intro to the film included a message from Crowe on the set of We Bought A Zoo, and a lively Martin Scorsese introducing Sir Elton to say a few words. More than 400 people turned out for the show, and as the sun fell on Battery Park, temperatures dropped well below comfort level but walk out were few. Following The Union, Elton John performed a short concert for an appreciative crowd, including €œTiny Dancer€ and several songs from The Union album.
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