What makes that premise notable is the fact that these two music legends are uniting for the first time in almost 40 years, after their '70s heyday. Beginning in 2010, "The Union" starts with John's after-the-fact raison d'etre: after 40-some records, what should one of the most iconic musicians in rock do for an encore? Emotionally affected by an old Leon Russell song -- Russell being one of his musical idols and peers from the '70s -- John decides what might be an inspiring creative kick in the ass is locating Russell and seeing if the elderly musician (now in his late '60s and not in the greatest of health) would like to make an album with him, produced by the award-winning T. Bone Burnett.
John quickly adopts a younger brother role, constantly championing the slower moving and sometimes physically ailing singer musician -- his belief is Russell's musical abilities even when the musician isn't quite up to speed is endearing, warm and inspirational. In fact, John states several times that the hope is through "The Union" documentary and album, audiences will rediscover the genius of Leon Russell. It's a generous and heartfelt gesture, John speaks at length about how much Russell meant to him and inspired him, and so in large part, the doc is about giving back.
Russell is whisked away early on in the documentary for what we're told is a life-threatening emergency brain surgery, but one gets the sense that Crowe has too much respect for the man to pry because this significant event is largely glossed over. The issue generally only manifests itself when Russell briefly talks about being too tired to work or John trying to motivate and inspire his hurting friend.
Context of Russell's musical greatness does tend to arrive a little deep into this 90-minute doc, Crowe perhaps unaware of the extent to which Russell has been overlooked by music lovers of a certain age, but it eventually gets there. While John does eulogize his work and influence early on, some of the greater context that grounds the artist among more famous peers -- members of Fleetwood Mac opened up for him on tour before they were famous and were awed -- is discovered later on.
Russell was a renowned piano session player who brought his magic touch to records by everyone: Elton John of course, the Beach Boys, The Crystals, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, The Byrds, Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Frank Sinatra, The Band, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, The Rolling Stones and many, many more. A prized arranger and crack musician, the then intimidating singer -- all long lion tresses and dark sunglasses -- also was the houseband piano and keys player for George Harrison's famed "Concert For Bangladesh." There's another doc to be made about Russell's rise and fall in the '70s and how fame eluded him, but this doc isn't that story.
And ultimately, while "The Union" is an interesting peek behind the curtain, the most engrossing element of the film is the emotional generosity of spirit, which Crowe keys in on and (wisely) makes the film's thematic core. John breaking down in tears during the soulful "In The Hands Of Angels," Russell's own homage to the friend who came out of nowhere and "saved his life," is particularly striking. While "The Union" may not interest those that aren't hardcore super fans of Russell and John's '70s work, what is infectious is the palpable enthusiasm and affection that both the filmmaker and John have for their beloved subject, long may he reign and one day get his true day in the sun. [B]
Here's an interview clip with good context.