A documentary portrait by filmmaker and avid music lover Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous,” “Pearl Jam Twenty“), “The Union” has a pretty simple concept: chronicling the making of The Union, the eponymously titled album by Elton John and the ultimate rock & roll session man Leon Russell, a musician also known for a solo career featuring his angelic yet gravely voice in songs that blend rock, country, blues, and gospel.
What makes that premise notable is the fact that these two music legends are uniting for the first time in almost 40 years, after their ’70s heyday. Beginning in 2010, “The Union” starts with John’s after-the-fact raison d’etre: after 40-some records, what should one of the most iconic musicians in rock do for an encore? Emotionally affected by an old Leon Russell song — Russell being one of his musical idols and peers from the ’70s — John decides what might be an inspiring creative kick in the ass is locating Russell and seeing if the elderly musician (now in his late ’60s and not in the greatest of health) would like to make an album with him, produced by the award-winning T. Bone Burnett.
Enter Cameron Crowe and his camera crews, dispatched to document their collaboration from minute one when Russell agrees (he’d been putting on tiny gigs with a small band to get by for several years). Fascinatingly enough, what appears to be a simple creative idea by John quickly transforms into something much deeper — a loving tribute from the English Piano Man to the overlooked, underloved and mostly forgotten Russell who never quite received his due outside of the ’70s and the pages of Rolling Stone magazine (which Crowe wrote for in his youth during that decade). Those looking for outregeous and diva-like behavior will be sorely disappointed, and while John is as annoying a figure as ever, he’s never been captured being this compassionate and genuinely concerned before.
John quickly adopts a younger brother role, constantly championing the slower moving and sometimes physically ailing singer musician — his belief is Russell’s musical abilities even when the musician isn’t quite up to speed is endearing, warm and inspirational. In fact, John states several times that the hope is through “The Union” documentary and album, audiences will rediscover the genius of Leon Russell. It’s a generous and heartfelt gesture, John speaks at length about how much Russell meant to him and inspired him, and so in large part, the doc is about giving back.
And so the album and documentary goes, a snapshot of reuniting, becoming comfortable with one another, finding their groove, really starting to cook and then getting ready for press and their first nerve-wracking tour. All in all, the doc is a celebration of these two musical titans, but those expecting typical rock doc drama and conflict to give the film momentum might want to look elsewhere. “The Union” is largely a love-in, and that’s its biggest drawback — there are rarely any steep obstacles or conflicts to upend the creation of the music.
Russell is whisked away early on in the documentary for what we’re told is a life-threatening emergency brain surgery, but one gets the sense that Crowe has too much respect for the man to pry because this significant event is largely glossed over. The issue generally only manifests itself when Russell briefly talks about being too tired to work or John trying to motivate and inspire his hurting friend.
Famous guests drop by to work on the album, Don Was, Booker T and a typically pretty odd appearance by Brian Wilson, who as the doyen of the autistic/brilliant musician mien, records his vocals in about 30 seconds and then awkwardly hightails it out of there (Russell calls him a genius, but also says he’s “from outerspace”). The tales of Russell in his youth visiting Wilson in his Pet Sounds heyday are rather amusing too, and it’s any wonder someone hasn’t done a deep dive documenatary of that fertile, but unstable period of Wilson’s life.
Context of Russell’s musical greatness does tend to arrive a little deep into this 90-minute doc, Crowe perhaps unaware of the extent to which Russell has been overlooked by music lovers of a certain age, but it eventually gets there. While John does eulogize his work and influence early on, some of the greater context that grounds the artist among more famous peers — members of Fleetwood Mac opened up for him on tour before they were famous and were awed — is discovered later on.
Russell was a renowned piano session player who brought his magic touch to records by everyone: Elton John of course, the Beach Boys, The Crystals, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, The Byrds, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, The Rolling Stones and many, many more. A prized arranger and crack musician, the then intimidating singer — all long lion tresses and dark sunglasses — also was the houseband piano and keys player for George Harrison’s famed “Concert For Bangladesh.” There’s another doc to be made about Russell’s rise and fall in the ’70s and how fame eluded him, but this doc isn’t that story.
And ultimately, while “The Union” is an interesting peek behind the curtain, the most engrossing element of the film is the emotional generosity of spirit, which Crowe keys in on and (wisely) makes the film’s thematic core. John breaking down in tears during the soulful “In The Hands Of Angels,” Russell’s own homage to the friend who came out of nowhere and “saved his life,” is particularly striking. While “The Union” may not interest those that aren’t hardcore super fans of Russell and John’s ’70s work, what is infectious is the palpable enthusiasm and affection that both the filmmaker and John have for their beloved subject, long may he reign and one day get his true day in the sun. [B]
Here’s an interview clip with good context.