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Tribeca 2011: “The Union,” Reviewed

Tribeca 2011: “The Union,” Reviewed (photo)

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My worry about “The Union,” Cameron Crowe’s documentary about the musical collaboration between Elton John and Leon Russell, was that it would be just another making-the-album documentary of the kind a lot of bands make these days to upsell Special Edition CDs and ward off piracy. And basically it is; it’s just the best possible version of that film, made with the sort of craft and heart that only a director (and music lover) of Crowe’s caliber could provide.

Elton John, you know, the prolific singer-songwriter of many hits in the ’70s and ’80s (including “Tiny Dancer” which was immortalized in a great scene in Crowe’s “Almost Famous”). Leon Russell, you might not; I didn’t. As a session musician, band leader, and piano player, he was an enormous influence on John’s life and career, maybe the biggest, according to “The Union.” At a loss for inspiration, John suddenly found it while on safari in Africa (oh, rock stars…). He would make an shared album with Russell. The final product, ultimately called “The Union,” would be split 50-50 between them, each providing vocals, piano, and songwriting. Crowe’s film is split about that evenly too, a fact reinforced by his rather brilliant use of split-screens throughout. Though John’s voiceover guides us through the story and offers insights into the songwriting and recording process, Russell’s journey and struggle is given equal narrative weight.

Crowe, the former Rolling Stone journalist turned screenwriter turned director, understands pop music better than almost any filmmaker who’s ever lived. Given his affinity for music and interviewing musicians, it’s kind of crazy that this is his first documentary about rock and roll. Not so crazy is how good he is at it. His use of technique, like those aforementioned split-screens, is phenomenal. One scene, in particular, which divides the frame between Russell playing a song he wrote for John and John overcome with emotions as he listens in the control room, cuts to the core of what the film is all about: the way the best and truest music comes from the heart and hits people in the same place. And it’s clear that John trusts Crowe — even soliciting his opinion about his music at times — in a way that makes “The Union” a much more unguarded portrait of two artists than it would have been in different, lesser hands.

Maybe the most revealing thing, and certainly most poignant, about “The Union”‘s portrait is its depiction of the artist in the autumn of his years. With “Almost Famous,” Crowe made one of the definitive movies about young rock and rollers. With “The Union,” he tackles the same subject from the other side of the hourglass. Russell is 69; in the middle of “The Union” sessions he suffers a “near-fatal health scare” that requires brain surgery. John is 64 and openly acknowledges that his days as one of the biggest rock stars in the world are well behind him (the fact that Michael Jackson couldn’t acknowledge it, he says, is part of what destroyed him).

John’s got enough money to hang out on African safari for the rest of his life if he wanted to. Rock stars at his age are supposed to settle in to full-on sellout mode. Unlike film directors, novelists, poets, whose creativity often grows with age, pop musicians’ relevance peaks around age 35. But John still has a creative fire in his belly that isn’t sated by money. So he’s still following his instincts wherever they lead, rather than following his record label’s advice to make a Motown record or a Christmas album (it will never happen, John vows). The final montage of “The Union,” set to a John and Russell song, sums it up nicely. The song is called “Never Too Old.”

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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