TV Review: HBO's 'The Union'
Cameron Crowe chronicles Elton John and Leon Russell at work
I'm an unapologetic Cameron Crowe fan.
That's not a big statement or anything. Lots of people are Cameron Crowe fans. But you want me to defend "Elizabethtown"? Oh, I'll defend "Elizabethtown." Happily. Assuming you don't also want a defense of Orlando Bloom *in* "Elizabethtown."
And yet somehow, Cameron Crowe released a movie in December that I didn't see in theaters. It seems that "We Bought a Zoo" has done reasonably well without me and I'll gladly catch it on DVD in a few months.
Fortunately, it feels like I've been watching Cameron Crowe documentaries non-stop. I ended up watching Crowe's very fine "Pearl Jam Twenty" twice last year and viewers can start 2012 with Crowe's "The Union," another sturdy documentary elevated by the director's passion for music and the sometimes astounding access that that passion gives him.
It's that passion that also sometimes blinds Crowe a tiny bit when it comes to applying focus to what was surely a mountain of footage stemming from the recording sessions for Elton John and Leon Russell's "The Union" album.
The result is a documentary that's sometimes a straight-forward making-of piece, sometimes a broader retrospective on two brilliant careers, but sometimes a more introspective look at what happens to two former wild-men of music when age sucks the wildness right out of them and the music is all that remains.
"The Union" doesn't quite gel and you're invariably wishing Crowe could give us more in some scenes and less in others, but it's full of magical and occasionally enlightening moments for fans of both artists and probably for fans of the musical process as well.
More after the break...
"So here we are, two old farts," An introspective Elton John observes after seeing Leon Russell for the first time in 38 years, as "The Union" picks up in 2009.
John has decided that he wants his next album to be a true collaboration with the legendary bandleader, so they're hunkering down in the studio to try to find a way to make a recording that isn't just "Elton John, accompanied by Leon Russell." That means that Crowe is getting an exposure to John's means and methods that Sir Elton tells us is unprecedented. It's a definite highlight to watch Elton John sit down with a sheet of Bernie Taupin lyrics and attempt to wrestle a melody onto that framework. Personally, I could have watched much more of that, but one gets the sense that John welcomed Crowe's camera on one or two occasions, but generally kept that part of his work off-limits, which is a minor disappointment.
Amidst Russell and John swapping stories -- Who knew Hal Ashby offered John the lead in "Harold & Maude"? -- and having conversations that feel a little too filmmaker-prompted, Crowe is capturing real moments, like when John listens to "In the Hands of Angels" for the first time and can't stop himself from crying.
Those "real" moments take precedence when, mid-production, Leon Russell has to take five days off after having emergency brain surgery. Russell, already the oldest 67-year-old man in history, returns to the studio frail and quiet and we sense that the images of manic 1970s Russell are about to gain unexpected and tragic poignancy. But Russell pulls through and we see how art is the through-line in his recovery. Here, Crowe smartly dwells on the notions of music and mortality (and possibly immortality) by contrasting who John and Russell were in the '70s and who they have become. In one fantastic split-screen, 2009 Elton John and 1970 Elton John both perform "Border Song," crystallizing a thesis Crowe probably could have hewed to even more closely. The mellowing and evolving of these two artists is emotional stuff and it's more interesting than some of the nuts-and-bolts details Crowe can't help himself from working in.
I loved Russell walking into the studio and trying to recover a song he sketched out in an Ambien haze the night before. I loved the almost wordless interaction between Russell and Brian Wilson, who drops by to do harmonies on a single track. I loved John explaining of his flamboyant former persona, "I made it work until it didn't work for me anymore" and explaining what does or doesn't driven him these days in terms of commercial concerns (and his vow that he'll never make a Christmas Album).
Under some circumstances, I might have loved a documentary that included T-Bone Burnett's contributions to this collaboration, but every time he talked in this particular documentary it felt like he was pulling focus from something more interesting. I didn't really need Stevie Nicks dropping by just to tell Leon she adored him. I could have sacrificed the radio interviews and promotion for "The Union" in favor of a clearer look at Russell's stage fright and warm reception at the Boston concert that opened their joint tour. "The Union" isn't a long documentary, but it's still studded with moments that Crowe found cool that maybe should have been DVD extras.
These aren't bad complaints to have, when you're saying that you'd trim some material featuring some musical legends in favor of other material with other musical legends. As he did on his Pearl Jam doc, Crowe has assembled a collection of superior archival footage, plus unique and terrific new footage and his challenge is figuring out what the right story is for his completed documentary. I don't know that he exactly nailed the storytelling on "Pearl Jam Twenty," nor do I think he exactly nailed the storytelling on "The Union," but that embarrassment of riches makes it easy to ignore the structural flaws.
Come to think of it, that's pretty much my defense of "Elizabethtown," too. Well, other than Orlando Bloom.
"The Union" airs at 9 p.m. on Thursday, February 2 on HBO.