Crowe pays homage to Elton John, Leon Russell
By David Rooney
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - At the end of Cameron Crowe's moving and eloquently simple documentary, "The Union," Elton John sings "You're never too old to hold somebody."
That lyric is entirely appropriate for a film that is one warm, extended embrace from the music legend to his idol, Leon Russell.
This chronicle of the making of John and Russell's 2010 Universal album of the same name is also a valentine from a filmmaker for whom music has always been an indispensable element of his movies. Reinforcing that connection, John began his live performance following the Tribeca Film Festival's opening-night screening with "Tiny Dancer," a song used to stirring effect in Crowe's 2000 feature, "Almost Famous."
The most visible directorial touch here is the split-screen employed to show the two musicians on opposite sides of a studio, or to juxtapose present-day images of them with their 1970s high style. Otherwise, Crowe's work is anything but intrusive. You get the sense he counts himself lucky just to be in the same room while these guys work. That congenial tone might make "The Union" a little reverential for non-fans, but it should find an eager audience of devotees on TV and DVD.
John toured with Russell back in the '70s, but the two had not seen each other in 38 years when they met again in Los Angeles to begin work on the album. John conceived the project as a tribute to a piano man and songwriter who was a major influence on him; his aim was to recapture the sound of Russell's vintage releases.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the result was listed by Rolling Stone among the top five albums of last year. It merges the expansive flavors of Russell's music -- combining rock 'n' roll, gospel, soul, blues, country -- with enveloping narratives and soaring sounds that evoke the golden years of John's songwriting collaboration with Bernie Taupin, another contributor to this album.
A 2011 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Russell had drifted into semi-obscurity before the album was made. At times he shows the watchful timidity of a hermit lured back into society. When John attempts to high-five him soon after their reunion, he says, "I don't know how to do that. That's some kind of sports thing, isn't it?" There's also a dry, self-effacing quality to his humor, and a notable lack of ego.
While his outfits might be less outre, Russell hasn't significantly altered his look in the four decades since he was heading Joe Cocker's band on the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour. But while his curtain of hair, epic beard, spectacles and occasional top hat back then gave him the air of an intimidating hippie wizard, he's now a more benign, white-maned figure, accurately described by John as looking like God. Continued...