HBO to air documentary on making of The Union by Elton John and Leon Russell

HBO will air an in-depth documentary look at The Union, the memorable 2010 collaboration between Elton John and longtime idol Leon Russell.

The Union would become John’s highest-charting album in more than 30 years, Russell’s best charter since 1972. Russell followed that success with a long-awaited induction nod at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This new documentary film, directed by Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous,” “Jerry Maguire”), goes behind the scenes to uncover the genesis of the project, its evolution and then the recording process — which also included guest turns by longtime Elton John collaborator Bernie Taupin, Neil Young and Brian Wilson, among others. John even allowed cameras into the composing process, something he’s never done before.

“In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the one piano player and vocalist who influenced me more than anyone else was Leon Russell,” John says in the the documentary, “and it really pisses me off that everyone seems to have forgotten about him.”

Elton John / Leon Russell — The Union premieres on Feb. 2 on HBO.

Here’s a look back at recent thoughts on both Leon Russell and Elton John, including our take on ‘The Union.’ Click through the titles for complete reviews …

ELTON JOHN AND LEON RUSSELL – THE UNION (2010): Elton John’s long and often dispiriting journey back to his 1970s muse led him to an early idol, Leon Russell. The result is “The Union,” a sturdy new collaboration full of spiraling soul and timeless revelations about starting over. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album refurbishes John’s tattered legacy even as it restores the legend of Russell — a consummate musician who saw his career stalled by a stubborn refusal to play to expectations. They talk about good times and bad, about a lover’s bruising departure, about history’s hard-won truths, about the end. Maybe their time has come and gone. But what a time it was. They do more, though, than deftly recapture the atmosphere and nerve of their best early 1970s work; throughout this album, there is a newfound sense of last-act perspective — and an emotional turmoil so often missing in Elton’s glossy modern period.

DEEP CUTS: ELTON JOHN, “COME DOWN IN TIME” (1970): This song, taken from a brilliant album called Tumbleweed Connection, is the reason why you have to hate Elton John’s last period. John is never in half light any more — never so patient, so bravely remote, so note perfect. Back then, he put out piano music, with an active and jazzy rhythm section, and there was uncommon beauty. The emotion around “Come Down in Time,” a track about lost love, is only deepened by the expressive bass work of Chris Laurence, the quiet majesty of these Bernie Taupin lyrics, and then a lonely oboe. Here, inside the spare arrangement by Paul Buckmaster, that John first successfully mines more melancholy themes that would become so familiar on 1970s radio. Even so, “Daniel” and “Rocket Man,” to my ear, have nothing on “Come Down in Time.”

FORGOTTEN SERIES: LEON RUSSELL: It’s fitting, of course, that Russell’s real last name is “bridges.” Claude Russell Bridges, born April 2, 1942, would one day write a tune called “The Masquerade” that, in jazz singer and guitarist George Benson’s hands, hit No. 1 simultaneously on the jazz, pop and R&B charts. It’s the footnote on Russell that got a thousand feet tapping. And powerful imagery that defines his life’s work in music. A gravelly marvel of a singer, Leon Russell parlayed his Cliff’s-notes rep as the rustic, yet rich swamp-popster into a terrific little rock sideshow. He’s never exactly been in the spotlight, but careful liner-note readers — at least for a while — could always find Russell along its fuzzy edges. If he set a standard of playing, and of innovating, that couldn’t be matched later, he also established himself as a hard-headed iconoclast, perhaps the last of the bird-flipping genre-busters.

ELTON NIGHT – ONE NIGHT ONLY: THE GREATEST HITS (2000): As pleasant as this compilation of songs may be, yeah, there are problems. The truth is, early 1970s records like Tumbleweed Connection (a studio release with no — no! — hit singles) and the rollicking “11-17-70” (a live trio album with cover — cover! — songs) are so much better than most of the more familiar stuff from 1975 on. Even so, true fans (yeah, me) still pull for stars from our youth — even years (or, yeah, even decades) past their physical (and maybe, yeah, artistic) peak. No matter how many times Elton abandons the lyrical magic he makes with Bernie Taupin for the fey obviousness of Tim Rice (the work for Disney and Broadway which, yeah, has won so many awards), he can still find the center of song like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in concert. We just wish he was still brilliant, instead of only good.

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  • Pamela Broussard

    I was there when this film premiered at the Tribeca
    Film Festival on opening night 2011. It was an amazing night with Martin Scorsese, The Bangles, Dennis Leary as host, and Elton John. After the show Elton came out and did a free set of about 10 songs.

    The Union was a musical amazement. To watch Elton John engaged in the creative process with the great Leon Russell. They were so authentic and so flawless in their collaboration.

    Cameron Crowe so hit the mark with this musical documentary. Without a doubt I plan to watch it again on HBO.