Tribeca Film Festival 2011: Opening Night with Sir Elton John

Well, treat this as my glorious return to film blogging, I guess, after an absence of a few months. From 4/20 to 4/30 is the Tribeca International Film Festival in New York City, and thanks to that bank associated with American Express, I got some rush tickets, VIP seats to major talks (how’s Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn sound?). But for the time being, let’s center ourselves around a rather star-studded night of celebrity to kick off the festival’s tenth year.

A stellar opening at the Tribeca Open-Air “drive-in” (more like walk-in — it was standing room only just after me and a colleague I’ll call Franz got our special seating) was heralded by Dennis Hopper, the Bengals (huh?), Lady of Ceremonies Jane Rosenthal, Martin Scorsese and of course — the headliner — the talk of the night with his new documentary — Sir Elton John, music-man. The center of the night would be the film about his collaboration with music legend (and John’s former idol) Leon Russell, titled “The Union”. Directed by Cameron Crowe, it is a fly-on the wall look at the stunning creative process behind Sir Elton John, and the brain trust that surrounds him. The up-tight, wired John exists in sharp contrast to the grizzled, relax, even grandfatherly Russell.

What would initially be an extra-features piece on a collector’s CD box-set is driven to the heights of documentary drama when Russell suffers a near-fatal brain condition and is forced to spend a week in recovery. The album that John desired to do so badly hangs in the balance. But upon Russell’s return, he shows a composition he created while hospitalized — “In the Hands of Angels” a song that references the fresh start to a declining musical career that John was giving him — a tune that brings John to tears and reinvigorates the already frenetic pace of the album’s production. Stylistically, the documentary features few interviews and a lot of hand-held “fly-on-the-wall” style of camera-work. Not that I have an issue with shaky-cam at times (God knows my own student films have enough of that) — but truth be told, it kind of grates on the eyes after an hour of watching five sweaty men make music.

Russell, though, progressively steals the show, from John, it seems, as we watch him make a recovery that seems almost supernatural. The music itself reviving his spirits and health is what many of the crew and producers attribute to this remarkable miracle of human determination. At it’s heart, this is a story of a man given redemption, a chance to rekindle a spark lost almost thirty years ago. And if it’s a sentimental melodramatic documentary that you want — this is it. It’s a great, wild, beautiful success in that regard.

But a few technical gripes doesn’t diminish the power of this documentary by any means — it was the heart of a night that featured the fruit of the collaboration — Elton John coming out in the dead of the forty degree night on the Hudson River and playing the opening of the new album — The Union. An album which reached number three on the Billboard charts, and reached the top of Amazon’s best seller list. A great closing to the opening festivities of what promises to be Tribeca’s grandest and most intriguing year. I for one, am extremely excited to take part.


About Ryan Silva
An American born cinephile writing, making films, and studying in New York City. Festival addict and student Jurist at the 2010 Rhode Island International Film Festival. Hits: moe anime and space operas. Misses: Smelly roommates and Jersey Shore

One Response to Tribeca Film Festival 2011: Opening Night with Sir Elton John

  1. Welcome back, Ryan.

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