ELTON JOHN AND 15-YEAR-OLD CAMERON CROWE IN 1972.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NEAL PRESTON
Cameron Crowe’s highly anticipated documentary, The Union, chronicles the collaboration of Elton John and Leon Russell as they recorded their new album and prepared to perform at the Beacon Theater in October 2010.
Like the best bootleg mixtapes, the film is a fascinating, multilayered collage of archival footage and photos, extended studio sessions, new concert clips and the treat of seeing Crowe, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Almost Famous) and director, in action as a music journalist. The album was named number 3 on Rolling Stone‘s “30 Best Albums of 2010” list.
“Cameron’s a friend,” Elton John told Interview at the film’s premiere. “I’ve done this kind of documentary before, when David [Furnish, his partner] did Tantrums and Tiaras with me, where you have a camera there all the time. And so after all, I just didn’t notice it. Cameron, I trust him and love him so much. We’ve been friends on and off for quite some time, especially after Almost Famous. He did this as a labor of love because he’s a music fan. He loved Leon Russell so much and he wanted to document this occasion of Leon making another record.”
The essential question in all of Crowe’s films is: how do people prevail after heartbreak or defeat? The Union, which in the hands of a lesser filmmaker would simply have been a great music documentary, is elevated to an exceptional and visionary work of art by the infusion of Crowe’s characteristically profound understanding of human nature. The film, Crowe’s first in six years, earned the honor of opening the Tribeca Film Festival in the year of the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. Just steps from Ground Zero, New Yorkers gathered under a moonless sky to watch a film about resurrection. John brings Russell, his early idol, back from the near-dead. To watch Russell (recovering from brain surgery) subtly bloom under the admiration of John, the guest artists and back-up singers, is deeply moving. The final shrug of a miracle from the gospel-influenced, snake-hipped, gravel-throated, gut-wrenchingly kickass musician, from whom Mick Jagger probably first learned his honky-tonk strut.
“Music and film are inseparable,” said Martin Scorsese, as he introduced the film at the premiere. “They always have been and always will be. And the same holds true for Cameron Crowe. I have to say, I’ve always been kind of envious of Cameron’s teenage years, because about half a century ago, when I was young, people always talked about having a fantasy, ‘I’m going to run away with the circus’… for many, that was a very romantic dream. Cameron ran away with the band when he was a teenager. The connection is there, in every frame of every film he’s ever made, from Say Anything to Almost Famous to The Union, which is about an extraordinary musical collaboration.”
Crowe very much wanted to attend The Union‘s premiere, but was wrapping We Bought a Zoo (he sent a video message from the set, shown at the screening). Interview spoke to Crowe on the final day of the Tribeca Film Festival.
LORRAINE CWELICH: How did you select Elton John and Leon Russell for your first music documentary?
CAMERON CROWE: They picked me; it was really just a matter of Elton John letting us use his music and movies. He’s so generous; he gave us all the separated tracks for the songs that we used. He allowed us to remix and reimagine his stuff. We’d always stop everything on the mixing stage to listen on the greatest speaker system possible, just listen to his music. I met Elton John when I first started writing for Rolling Stone. He’s such a fan himself that he reads about everybody and listens to everything. So I met him then, but I didn’t know him all those years. As soon as Almost Famous came out, he called and said, “I saw the movie and really enjoyed it. I liked the way you used the song; it’s fantastic. How is the marketing? What more can we do?” He’s so helpful that it continued a conversation that spanned years. At one point he said, “I’d like you to film me writing. I think you’re the guy to do that, I’d be comfortable with you, if you’re ever interested. I’ll call you when I come to town.” So he did. And we got a little film crew together and started filming, ostensibly just him writing. But it turned out to be the first day that he came in to write with Leon Russell. It turned into the most wonderful hobby. It was like going to directing college while staying up late writing term papers.
ELTON JOHN AND LEON RUSSELL IN CROWE’S THE UNION.
CWELICH: Did you interview Elton John when you were a journalist at Rolling Stone?
CROWE: No. Oddly enough, there are artists that get picked by journalists as kind of their beat. At Rolling Stone, there were people who were like, “I write about Elton John” or “I write about The Rolling Stones.” “Well, okay, then I’ll write about Jethro Tull.” “I hate Jethro Tull!” Nobody really wanted to write about The Who, either; Dave Marsh did.
CWELICH: What was your beat?
CROWE: It was like, “We write about Van Morrison. You want to write about Led Zeppelin? Yeech, take ’em.”‘ So I said, “I’ll write about Led Zeppelin! I’ll write about Humble Pie! I’ll write about Deep Purple for three weeks!” “We’re gonna stay back in San Francisco and write about Bob Dylan.” So I did all these other bands, including The Allman Brothers Band. And Elton John, whom I met randomly at a party for Rocket Records, he threw a party for the opening of his label in L.A., and he said to me, “I know who you are. I just read your cover story on Gregg Allman. It was cool. You really caught Gregg Allman. I love The Allman Brothers Band.” That’s how I met Elton John. I was 15. And the irony was, on the last day of filming [The Union] at the Beacon, Gregg Allman was singing on “Shiloh,” so it all came together. And Almost Famous is a lot about touring with The Allman Brothers.
CWELICH: How did the idea for your next music documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, originate?
CROWE: One of my longest-term friends is their manager. I’ve known him and the band forever. Kelly always used to say, “One day you’ve got to do the big anthology film about Pearl Jam.”
CWELICH: Without stating it overtly, you demonstrate in The Union that although people get older, their talent doesn’t vanish. Also, Elton does the album as an altruistic act for Leon, but Leon ironically brought out some of Elton’s best songwriting in years; it’s more bluesy, grittier.
CROWE: The most poignant thing that Elton said, and I kept talking to him about it because it felt like a theme early on, was that to move forward sometimes you have to go back to the very beginning. It’s been on my mind a lot lately. Why can’t it be that you go back to the very beginning of your career and think about what those roots were? They were Leon Russell-shared roots, except Leon was a little more church and Southern and Elton was more English and studied more piano players. By the third album, he and Bernie Taupin had gone straight for Leon’s Southern roots. It wasn’t repeating themselves; it was going back to an early love. Elton’s so appreciative; he’s thanking Leon every day, and the amazing thing to catch on film was Leon’s slow-burning ability to trust. At the beginning, he’s very wary. Over time, the wariness that built up over hard knocks in Leon’s life erodes into what he really is, which is a guy who was waiting to be loved like that again.
CWELICH: We see the fan in you emerge when you interview Russell at the end. Was it hard for you to be on the road with bands as a teenager and be a fan, but not be allowed to let it show?
CROWE: There’s several ways to be a journalist. One way is to be combative and take the person to task and what you have is a portrait of somebody defending themselves, which is interesting. The other thing is to slip into their world and really be a representative for all the people that love the experience of that artist, and have them get so comfortable that you become invisible and they’re themselves. And I think that’s in The Union, because that’s who Elton John is… I’m more free with it now. That’s how I am as a director, too; if somebody does a really good take, I can’t help it, I’m not even aware of it. Actors really, really need positive reinforcement. They’re out there, raw, doing your stuff; you’ve written something, and you’re asking them to pour their hearts out with a crew of 30 people standing around. John Cusack, the first time I directed, said, “I’ve worked with great directors. You know what the great directors share? They’re there for the actor. As soon as the actor finishes, they can get in the eye line with you, the director, and know how they did. If you’re off, looking at the monitor, I’m going to feel like I’m out here alone, when in fact I’m throwing down for you.” That’s what he said. So as a result of that, as a director, I try to be there for my actors. And it changed my interviewing style a bit.
CWELICH: When you made the transition from journalism to writing a nonfiction book, with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, to adapting it to a screenplay, how did you learn to make that leap from expressing yourself in narrative form to dialogue?
CROWE: I was lucky enough to work with James L. Brooks, whom I loved since my family used to watch Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant. My first favorite TV show was written by James L. Brooks, Room 222. He’s amazing. He helped me learn screenwriting, for sure, working on Say Anything. We worked on it for years.
CWELICH: What advice did he give you?
CROWE: Take it from your own life, write what you believe in. We’d sit in his office and talk for hours. I’d say something like, “My sister, I wish she’d just learn to decide to be in a good mood and then just be in a good mood.” He would say, “That you should write.” I’d go, “What? What did I say?” He’d go, “That’s what you should write, because that’s your voice.” We’d do scenes. He’d say, “Write a scene between a sister and a brother, similar to your situation.” I would write a scene and he’d say, “Now, that scene stays.”
CWELICH: How did you write in Diane Court’s voice in Say Anything, because it’s so different than Lloyd Dobler’s?
CROWE: I wrote a whole novella in Diane Court’s voice, for a writing exercise. That helped me. Again, that was Jim Brooks saying, “Write your story as a novella,” which I did, and it turned out to be first-person, Diane Court, which was really helpful because then I did another draft that was all about Diane. That’s being lucky enough to have somebody who’s inspiring and generous with their time. It’s about learning your own voice.
CWELICH: How did you work with John Cusack on the character of Lloyd Dobler?
CROWE: He said, “I want to bring anarchy and politicism and The Clash and The Replacements,” and I was like, “Hell, yeah! Let’s do it!”
CWELICH: Was there a lot of improv?
CROWE: No, there’d be stuff like a scene where he sits at the dinner table and Diane’s father asks him what he wants to do with his life. John came in that day and said, “I want this to be about Reagan.” He had about 8 pages of stuff he had written, like “I have a father who’s in the military, so I don’t want to be processed and go down the assembly line,” so I said, “That’s great. Put that in.” So we did the scene and because he had just written it that morning, he forgot the order of “I don’t want to sell, buy or be processed.” So he’s kind of working it out as I’m shooting it. I said, “That’s it.”
We’ve got to use that, because he hasn’t worked out his whole life philosophy yet. So when Cusack saw that scene, he got initially really irritated. He said, “You’ve used me flubbing” and I said, “No—it makes it real.” That was the nature of our collaboration. We’d always laugh about that, like, “Together we will be Lennon and McCartney, but we’ll argue over who gets to be Lennon.”
CWELICH: Have you thought of doing another movie with Cusack?
CROWE: I would love to make another movie with him, because whenever we talk, we’ll still those same guys, back and forth, kicking stuff around. He says he’s Lloyd on a good day. It’s tough to write a movie for a character like that, because generally the guys who get your movie financed are less character-y guys. So you end up with a leading man who you’re trying to make more character-y. I think you’ll like Matt Damon in the new movie. He did a great job; he can really be that guy. He’s so much funnier than people even know. It’s a Matt Damon you might see on Letterman; he’s so loose and fun.
CWELICH: When was the last time you wrote for Rolling Stone?
CROWE: We did the Rolling Stone interview with Neil Young, which will probably run sometime in the next six months or so. I did it around the time Neil recorded “Shiloh” with Elton John, for Le Noise album.
CWELICH: Is there a compilation of all your Rolling Stone articles, either online or in print?
CROWE: There’s a website called The Uncool. [“We are uncool,” says music critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool”]. I’m also doing a collection book with Jann Wenner, that I’ve been working on for a long time. I kept everything.
CWELICH: What was your favorite go-to question as a music journalist?
CROWE: I really liked asking them about their more famous stuff, but I would say, “Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan, means this and that to so many people. But what does it mean to you? What comes to your mind? What was it like from the inside looking out?” I loved to ask them about the stuff they get asked about a lot, but I would always get really good answers by freeing them not to respond to what the public perception of something was, but their private feeling about it. It generally would be: what comes to mind immediately as I ask you this? “London Calling, that’s an amazing breakthrough double album,” you’d say. “Here’s what it means to most people: it’s like a spaceship landing, it was so fresh and new. But what was it to you?” Generally you’d get a really good answer.
CWELICH: What was the best advice that Lester Bangs gave you?
CROWE: Essentially just to write. He did it by example; he filled the files with unassigned record reviews, just unsolicited things, he’d just write them just to write. He’d stay up all night and write and send stuff in. Some stuff he would send to Trouser Press or the San Diego Door, where I worked with my sister. It’s in Almost Famous, when he says, “Just to write.”
CWELICH: He also says not to become friends with the band…
CROWE: The amazing thing was I came to Birmingham, Michigan on an assignment and called up Lester and said, “Do you want to hang out?” He said, “Yeah, I’m going over to the hotel to hang out with my friends from The Tubes.” So he was selective in how he took his own advice!
CWELICH: What was your favorite interview?
CROWE: Probably interviewing Bob Dylan for the Biograph liner notes, where we talked about each song, and he talked about all his feelings. That’s one of my favorite interview things, too, is to ask what came to mind when they wrote that song, what can you remember about the song, what did it mean to you. A lot of artists won’t do that, but if you interview them for a box set or something like that, I love to do that. There was this interview with Bob Dylan, I’d go: “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” And he’d say, “Well, that was written in New York…” And it was an amazing interview.
CAMERON CROWE IS CURRENTLY IN TALKS TO DISTRIBUTE THE UNION. PEARL JAM TWENTY IS DUE IN SEPTEMBER 2011, AND WE BOUGHT A ZOO WILL HAVE A DECEMBER 23, 2011 RELEASE.