Cameron Crowe’s State of The Union

Published May 5, 2011

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, conducting interviews. The album became 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.

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, which was 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 immediately 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 for a while. It was like going to directing college while staying up late writing term papers.READ THE FULL INTERVIEW.