'Union' fitting update to singers' legacies

Gone to Shiloh for the Union.

-- Elton John & Leon Russell

My wife and I had this discussion last week as we watched Cameron Crowe's brilliant documentary "The Union," which captured the making of Elton John and Leon Russell's magical 2010 album of that name.

Watching Russell, his mane of long hair and Grizzly Adams beard strikingly white, my wife said she found it sad to see and listen to artists she'd enjoyed when younger after they'd lost the vitality of youth.

I disagreed. I told her it was reassuring for me to hear two of my favorite singer/songwriters from the 1970s still in strong voice making relevant music. Even so, I couldn't help but admit to fits of nostalgia -- and, yes, twinges of sadness -- as I watched the once-vital Russell deal with health issues as he worked on the magical music he and Sir Elton created along with longtime Rocket Man lyricist Bernie Taupin and guests like Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Don Was and Booker T. Jones.

The story behind the John/Russell collaboration is a touching one. Russell had always been one of John's musical heroes, and when Sir Elton learned that the man he'd long admired was essentially playing bars and other dives to eke out a living, he called him up and said he wanted to do an album together.

Under the direction of musical genious T-Bone Burnett, the pair created "The Union," a masterpiece that showcases both men's talents. (If you don't have the album, by the way, you should get it.) Crowe's documentary shows the two one-time superstars going through the feeling-out process before they hit their stride.

Once they clicked, excellent music followed: "Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes," "If It Wasn't for Bad," "Gone to Shiloh," "Monkey Suit," "When Love Is Dying," "Never Too Old" and "In the Hands of Angels."

Perhaps the most poignant moment in Crowe's documentary came when Russell walked into the studio and announced he'd written a song for the project. "I need to get it down before I forget it," he said.

John and Burnett listened in awe as Russell sang and played "In the Hands of Angels," and when it dawned on John that the song was about the project they were working on and how it had "saved (Russell's) life," he left the control room of the studio. A camera followed Sir Elton into the next room and found him sobbing, overcome with emotion.

The hug that the two shared when Russell finished the song was a truly touching moment.

Crowe, a former Rolling Stone writer who created such memorable films as "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Almost Famous," "Jerry Maguire," "Say Anything..." and "We Bought a Zoo" and another musical documentary close to his heart -- "Pearl Jam Twenty" -- captured the essence of both Russell and John in "The Union," which was selected to open the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Footage from both singers' glory years offered fine counterpoint and historical background for "The Union," showing why this collaboration was indeed historic.

If you too have conflicting feelings about your rock and roll heroes as they pass retirement age, you need to (a) buy a copy of "The Union" album and listen for things like the Russell-suggested "shoop-shoop, shoop-shoop we did it with it" backing vocals on "Monkey Suit" or the emotion in John's voice as he sings "When Love Is Dying" and (b) watch Crowe's documentary (it's currently showing on HBO).

If you're like me, you might miss the '70s, when Sir Elton was "Captain Fantastic" and Leon was the maddest hatter among the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." But you'll celebrate a union that is an appropriate update to both men's wonderful careers.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcheralbanyherald.com.