Feb 092012

Has anyone caught the Cameron Crowe-directed documentary on the Elton John–Leon Russell collaboration that premiered on HBO last week?

I am an unabashed big fan of Leon Russell. I think his early ‘70s albums were as good as it gets. (An early RTH thread on best string of albums probably didn’t mention Leon Russell, Shelter People, Asylum Choir II, and Carney but should have.)

I always liked Elton John’s early hits and had his first two albums. He’s also an artist that I have grown to like more and more as time passes. Back about a half-dozen years ago I bought all the early albums when they had the reissues cheap at the BMG club and was pleasantly surprised by just how much I liked them.

So, not unsurprisingly, I greatly looked forward to The Union, the Elton-Leon collaboration that came out in late 2010. And if it wasn’t as great as I wished it might have been, it was a lot better than I feared it might be – and that’s not as much damning with faint praise as it sounds.

I greatly enjoyed this documentary. It’s really Elton’s show but then so was the collaboration. The backstory, for those who need it, is that Russell was a great inspiration and hero for Elton way back when. They hadn’t been in contact for decades and somewhere along the way Elton became aware of Russell’s circumstances—Russell’s apparently pretty much broke, playing small clubs, health issues—and Elton wanted to get him the recognition he (John) feels he (Russell) deserves.

The documentary is quite touching. John’s love and respect for Russell is really the center of the film. There are scenes with the two of them writing the songs, rehearsing, recording, etc. The different characters are almost like caricatures—Elton is generally seen in a sweat suit, carrying a few too many pounds, and looking like the stand-in for Mr. Cunningham on Happy Days; Russell looks like the old rocker who’s past caught up to him awhile ago and is resigned to his fate. Brian Wilson, shown in a short cameo contributing backing vocals on a cut is the deer in the headlights acid casualty character that he always is nowadays.

Russell really has had a heckuva career that I wish got more attention in the film. In addition to the more well-known parts of his resume—Mad Dogs & Englishman, Concert For Bangladesh, “A Song For You,” “This Masquerade”—he’s one of those legendary session musicians who was involved in almost everything. He studied guitar under James Burton; co-wrote Gary Lewis’ hits “Everybody Loves A Clown” and “She’s Just My Style”; arranged “River Deep, Mountain High”; played on sessions for Sinatra, Dylan, The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” everyone’s favorite Halloween song “Monster Mash,” and lots of others with The Wrecking Crew.

There’s a nice timeline of Russell’s career here.

I saw Russell live back in his heyday, circa 1972, at the sold-out Spectrum and again a few years ago at the Iron Horse, a club that seats maybe 150 people (and wasn’t full). The former was a fantastic show, the latter not so much, mostly because of those memories of the earlier show. I’d advise anyone to go see him though. He rips though the set list like he’s The Ramones, barely a second or two break between songs, few enough words from the stage to rival Dylan. Not enough of his classic songs either, but he has enough of those that there are still plenty.

Here’s Russell from 1964, looking nothing like the Leon Russell we know (skip the first 30 seconds):

And here is the more typical “Master Of Time & Space” persona in 1972:

I’m sure the doc is on HBO multiple times. It’s a great way to spend 90 minutes.


  12 Responses to “The State of The Union”

  1. I don’t get HBO, so I’ll have to wait to see this. I’d like to. My Leon Russell-loving uncle called me the day after to tell me how much he loved it. He saw Elton John open for Russell on Elton’s first tour of the US.

  2. Thanks for the heads up on this — I am about to cancel HBO, so I’ll check this out first!

  3. I’d like to see this too although we don’t have cable so I’ll have to wait for netflix.

    I am skeptical about Cameron Crowe’s involvement. I recently saw the Pearl Jam documentary that he put together. I’m not a fan of theirs but I can watch a documentary about almost anyone. Man was that one dull slog…

  4. BigSteve

    Leon Russell disappeared so completely after his early 70s peak, that it’s hard to convey how popular and influential he was. Bill Payne said his early work with Little Feat was also heavily influenced by Russell. I don’t know if the documentary explains his financial troubles, but my guess is that he lost a lot of money when he fell out with Denny Cordell and Shelter Records. You would think he could survive on royalties from his hits, but I don’t know if he still has those rights.

  5. I will say that if the subject matter doesn’t interest you, you won’t be entranced by the directorial genius.

  6. It doesn’t get into the financial difficulties at all. In fact, it really doesn’t get into any of his difficulties although during the recording of the album (and the filming) he had some kind of serious sounding brain surgery. Anything I’ve read about his problems has been very circumspect and some minor googling reveals little.

  7. What was that line the woman with the crinkled smile and squinty eyes says in Crowe’s “Show Me the Money!” movie, “You had me at ‘hello.'”? When I first saw that Crowe directed this I thought, “You lost me at Crowe.” Thankfully the rest of what Al wrote makes me think I could get by the director’s ass-kissing approach.

  8. I hope cattle, rattlesnakes, and vultures aren’t somehow involved:)

    (Sorry, that may be the dumbest Inside RTH joke I’ve ever made.)

  9. Noted, Al.

    But the question is: If the subject matter does interest me, will I be thrown off by the bland/overly sentimental treatment that I’ve come to expect from Mr Crowe?

  10. misterioso

    Wow, that early clip of him is amazing. It sounds just like him but I wonder if I could have figured out who it was. The visuals of Leon Russell are generally as distinctive as his sound. Very funny to hear that voice emanating from a whole different look.

    What I’d really like to see, actually, is a really good and in-depth documentary on Elton John, at least up to a certain point where he ceases to interest me. Not a behind the music, which I think was done, actually. But like al I am very fond of the early Elton albums (up to probably Cap’n Fantastic?) and singles (up to late 70s?) and he is a major figure in 70s music. But I know nothing about what drove him creatively or whether he has ever regretted becoming a cartoon character, for example.

  11. Kind of a Catch-22 question cdm, in that a large part of the appeal of the film, at least to me, is the sentimentality of Elton John’s feelings for Leon Russell and his attempt to right the scales of justice, as it were.

    If the subject matter interests you I can’t imagine you NOT liking the movie.

    Let me put things another way. There have been many of these reclamation projects in the past – Springsteen with Gary US Bonds, Tom Petty with, who was it, Del Shannon?, Jack White with Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn. Those projects always seemed more about the latter day star and the noblesse oblige aspect of it whereas Elton makes it seem about Russell. There’s a limit to how successful he can be in that regard – he is the name, the drawing card after all – but his goal seems 100% sincere.

  12. 2000 Man

    I’ve always loved Carney, and my copy reflects that love pretty well. I haven’t listened to it in awhile until fairly recently, and I’ve been really getting into it again. I found Shelter People, it’s got a few pops and clicks but it was well worth the two bucks I paid for it. I think I’ll keep an eye out for the documentary and the other records from his really good run. That first video is something else!

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