The Union debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
“I love you, Leon.”
Although these words, spoken by Elton John to Leon Russell, are the final utterances in The Union, Cameron Crowe’s documentary on the making of the identically-titled album by Messrs. John and Russell, it’s hard to call them any sort of spoiler, as there have been precious few recordings in recent years on which the phrase “labor of love” hangs quite as comfortably.
Russell is the sort of musician whose name causes immediate genuflection in other musicians, and if it doesn’t, then it’s only because they don’t realize that he’s written several full-fledged classic songs—“A Song for You,” “Delta Lady,” and “Superstar” are but a few of them—and played on countless others as part of the legendary session musicians known as “the Wrecking Crew," so many that he can't even remember the names of all of them. (At one point, he fails to come up with the title of the Beach Boys' "Fun Fun Fun," describing it as "the one where they talk about the T-Bird.") Hell, Russell even played piano on “The Monster Mash.” In short, the man is a goddamned legend, and he has been for quite some time now.
Alas, the music industry has never cared a great deal for legends that aren’t easily marketable to the masses, and Russell, with his long white hair, gargantuan beard, and bluesy piano stylings, hasn’t been a poster boy for commercial success for quite some time. What perfect timing, then, for the arrival of Sir Elton, working his way through a career transition of his own and seeking the sort of creative inspiration that makes him happy to make music, its chances of topping the charts be damned.
Given that their T-Bone-Burnett-produced album came out in 2010, many have already heard the end result of the two gentlemen’s efforts in the studio—and those who haven’t heard The Union really should, because it’s the best thing Elton John’s name has been attached to in ages—but Crowe’s cinematic coverage of the writing, recording, and even promoting of the album really brings home just how much the experience meant to both of these men.
When Russell first arrives at the studio, he comes across as fragile, partially from having just battled through health woes, but mostly because he hasn’t seen, let alone worked with, Elton John in 38 years. Sitting down at the piano, Russell’s voice projects loudly enough, but it sounds uncertain. The material, however, is strong, and as Russell belts out a song called “In The Hands Of Angels,” the emotion in his performance is enough to bring Elton to tears. Slowly but surely, Russell finds his footing in the studio, and when the time comes to bring in the backup singers, there’s little question that he’s gotten his mojo back in a big way.
Occasionally, other music legends can be seen popping into the studio. Brian Wilson contributes harmonies to a song and comes across as eccentric as ever, while Stevie Nicks makes the greatest impression, swinging by to tell Russell how influential his live performances were to her and Lindsey Buckingham and to thank him. If Nicks’ sudden appearance feels a bit staged, her comments nonetheless ring just as true as any of the ones made by John.
With all due respect to Crowe’s efforts as a director of fictional dramas, this is now the second “rockumentary,” if you will, that he’s released within a span of less than six months (the other being Pearl Jam: Twenty), both of which are arguably more enthralling than anything else he’s helmed since 2000’s Almost Famous. That’s not to say that the other films he’s released since then have been garbage, although some might reasonably argue that Elizabethtown qualifies as such, but the man’s quickly carved himself a nice little niche as a documentarian that, frankly, he really ought to explore more often.
It must be said that there are times during The Union when it feels like John’s using the documentary as a platform to remind viewers about how great it is that he’s unafraid to go uncommercial (although he never actually calls out Rod Stewart by name, there’s a great little rant where he pointedly notes that he’s not of a mind to pump up his chart success by recording covers albums), but there’s never any question that the reason he’s doing the album is to remind the world just how great Leon Russell truly is. Between his efforts and those of Crowe, it’s fair to say that the world has a pretty good idea at this point… and it's about time.