In “The Union,” Cameron Crowe’s documentary about the studio recording sessions for the 2010 album of the same name, musicians Elton John and Leon Russell sound great together. That’s about the highest compliment you can give this sloppy, meandering portrait of two first-rate pianists doing what they do best.
With the production values of a forgettable MTV special, “The Union” is the least-involving piece of filmmaking Crowe has done. The director seemed to understand that, since he missed out on its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in order to shoot another movie. However his next project turns out, it will probably erase any lingering memories of this poorly executed and forgettable product.
That being said, the middling qualities that hold “The Union” down never destroy the talent it showcases. The portly, white-bearded Russell, now in his late sixties and virtually forgotten by the contemporary music scene, belts out heartfelt, bluesy tunes that remind the world of his skill and demonstrate how his soulful approach inspired the young Elton, who relishes the opportunity put his idol back in the public eye.
Despite the fleeting drama of a health scare when Russell suffers brain damage — only to return to the studio 10 days later — the movie maintains a light, cheery feel, as the two men maintain their affectionate collaboration and occasionally kick back to discuss the past. The album (which eventually debuted at the number three spot on the Billboard 200 chart) came together under the careful guidance of producer T-Bone Burnett, who offers a few nuggets of wisdom about overseeing the combination of these two piano powerhouses.
Burnett maintains a much greater degree of control over the proceedings than Crowe. The director’s stylistic maneuvers include distended split screens featuring John and Russell engaged in conversation, in addition to random footage shown (for no discernible reason) in black-and-white.
There are glimmers of a better movie when Crowe gets his subjects to talk about their early days. Although Russell remains fairly tight-lipped, John eagerly recalls the beginning stages of his career, deeming his initial stardom “a dangerous, glorious blur.” Littered with random, sometimes amusing anecdotes, “The Union” may hold some importance for diehard John or Russell fans, since it preserves the legacy of their collaboration. “Writing this album with you has made my songwriting get better again,” John tells Russell. That’s a nice moment, but Crowe fails to follow up on it. In fact, he doesn’t really direct the movie at all, instead simply allowing it to happen by having cameras in the room.
“The Union” concludes with a late 2010 performance of the entire album at New York’s Beacon Theatre. It looks like it was a lovely show, based on the few clips provided. I’m sure most audiences would rather watch an entire concert film based around that gig, especially given the expansive location, which Martin Scorsese recently used to great success with the cinematic Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light.”
Speaking of venues: Opening Tribeca for its 10th anniversary, “The Union” screened at a huge outdoor venue right by the water. Occasional planes roared overheard, drowning out the dialogue, and it grew increasingly cold throughout the night. Once the movie ended, however, John appeared onstage, sat down at a piano, and brought the crowd to tears with a passionate rendition of “Tiny Dancer.” In that moment, his skill became more evident than any of Crowe’s blasé direction bothered to demonstrate. “The Union” ranks low on the quality scale for Tribeca openers, but for a brief moment Elton saved the day.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? There’s no theatrical release on the horizon for this simplistic behind-the-scenes portrait, but it could wind up as a bonus feature with another edition of the CD or take the form of some other supplementary feature.
criticWIRE grade: C