Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Union/Luck

Cameron Crowe's The Union is the story of Elton John and Leon Russell's album of the same title. The album The Union received a rare five-star review from Rolling Stone, was regarded as major return to 1970's form for John and a reminder of Russell's talent. With all the success of the album it's a pleasant surprise to report that Crowe's film doesn't fall into the trap of mythologizing its stars in the way that his Pearl Jam 20 project sometimes did. The Union is instead a film about two working musicians who just once happened to be famous. The details of the writing and recording are mostly elided (Russell underwent brain surgery during the recording, and Crowe tells us in a title card.), except for a moment where Russell plays a newly written song for producer T-Bone Burnett and and a moved John. What's striking about The Union is the way both musicians go about their work with the dedication of master craftsmen without regard for how the album might be received. John, who at times seems ambivalent about being filmed, has a wonderful speech about refusing to pander by making a Christmas album while Russell (grateful to be remembered  by his peers) behaves as a man who has no other choice but to make music. Cameron Crowe appears on screen briefly but largely stays out of the way, and the vintage clips of John and Russell are well-chosen. Crowe isn't recalling the good old days but instead presenting another part of the arc that these two men have always been on. As the album is released and the two men begin the cycle of promotion, it's gratifying to see Russell so warmly welcomed back. Yet The Union leaves one with the inescapable feeling that the work is, and has always been, enough.

I don't often write about a single episode of television that isn't a series finale, but the premiere of HBO's Luck is an occasion for celebration thanks to the return of writer/creator David Milch. As in his Deadwood, Milch creates a world and then slowly teases out meanings and connections. I don't know if the gamblers (led by Kevin Dunn and Jason Gedrick) who strike it rich in the pilot will have anything to do with Dustin Hoffman's newly out-of-jail and plotting something Ace, but the fact that Milch didn't feel the need to answer that question or explain very much of anything right away means that there's a long game being worked. The confidence of the first hour of Luck may be its most attractive feature, just beating out the horse races shot by director Michael Mann. If Mann and Milch are content to let us sit with these actors and these characters for such a heavily hyped first hour then they believe in what they're doing, and I'm happy to spend time Nick Nolte (as a trainer) and Michael Gambon (yet to come) along the way.

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