Cameron Crowe’s docu “The Union” chronicles the collaboration among Elton John, Leon Russell and T Bone Burnett in making the 2010 album “The Union.” Crowe’s lifelong involvement in the music scene would seem to make him the perfect helmer for such an endeavor. Yet the film, like the album, winds up far more Sir Elton’s project, conceived as a musical tribute to John’s idol and mentor Russell — an acknowledgment of a worthy musician only recently rediscovered, in large part thanks to John. Pic opened the Tribeca fest accompanied by a concert, and should ride John’s superstardom into brief theatrical play before endless tube reruns.
Though John had played with Russell in the ’70s, the two had not met up again in 38 years. Burnett bridges the initial awkwardness by digging up a video of Mahalia Jackson’s legendary gig at the Newport Jazz Festival, galvanizing the two musicians into a spontaneous songwriting session on alternating pianos, with Crowe celebrating the collaboration in one of the many split-screen effects he uses throughout the docu.
At other times, Crowe deploys the split-screen to counterpoint his principals — a sexy, dangerous-looking Russell in his heyday, with the white-bearded, almost God-like figure he now suggests; or an outrageously garbed, jumping-bean John against his earnest, more mature self. Perhaps the most revelatory trip down memory lane takes the form of a wall of albums on which Russell served as session player, seminal recordings by artists like the Crystals, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra, Ray Conniff and Aretha Franklin. It’s an impressive visual that’s accompanied by matching audio samplings, and speaks volumes about Russell’s range and ubiquity.
John, never one to fade into the background, is vociferous in his determination to reinstate Russell’s preeminence (pic ends with notice of Russell’s 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). But his constant lauding of Russell’s musicianship and emotional pep-talks about how well the two are meshing, tends to turn an organic process into a deliberate agenda. It’s a gabby, back-patting self-consciousness that compromises Crowe’s attempts at visualization, though the split-screen contrast between Russell’s laconic wryness and John’s teary effusiveness does not lack for humor.
John’s contributions feel more like cheering sessions than they do a fly-on-the-wall peek at the creative process, but the gradual revival of Russell’s talents are a joy to behold — and made more dramatic by a near-fatal medical emergency. He returns after 10 days, rapidly morphing from invalid (with doctor in situ) to full-fledged contributor; we can see him being reenergized as he interprets a version of John’s “Monkey Suit.”
A queue of famous musicians, including Booker T. Jones, Don Was, Stevie Nicks and Brian Wilson, drop by the studio to sit in and/or express their appreciation, further drawing Russell back into the music scene.
Pic is a comeback of sorts for director Crowe as well, repping his first work after a six-year hiatus, with docu “Pearl Jam Twenty” and the much-anticipated “We Bought a Zoo” in the pipeline.