From an age when I still had a Playmobil collection, I can remember loving music documentaries.
The first that I ever watched – and re-watched countless times – was the amazing The Beatles Anthology series, where the band and George Martin told their story candidly and with good humour. It kickstarted a passion for finding out more about the musicians whose work I love. The Eagles tell their own story with brutal honesty in History of the Eagles, as do Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Runnin’ Down A Dream – though there is obviously significantly less drama in the latter. There are some heartbreakingly beautiful documentaries that focus on the personal element of an artist’s story, such as Asif Kapadia’s Amy and James Keach’s I’ll Be Me, which captures Glen Campbell’s farewell tour after his tragic diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease. Equally brilliant others, such as What Happened, Miss Simone?, make use of unreleased archival footage. In most cases, however, what’s needed to document a notable musician’s life effectively is very simple: a focus on the music itself.
In an age where the social norm seems to be documenting everything to extent that people are photographing their breakfast and putting it on Instagram, I must ask the question: why has a decent film celebrating the music created by Elton John and his band not been made?
I’ve already made the argument that Elton John and his band are the best rock ‘n’ roll act still on the road today. I still stand by the statement that he’s reinvented himself musically even more times than Bowie did and I firmly believe that it is quite simply disgraceful that the musicians he’s played with since the 1970s – Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray – who tragically passed away in 1992 –, Davey Johnstone and Ray Cooper – haven’t yet been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. You can read more on that here.
A couple of good Elton John movies have been made. Tantrums and Tiaras is an extremely captivating and, at times, hysterical insight into the personality of a world famous musician on the road. Cameron Crowe’s The Union captures Elton’s excellent 2010 collaboration with Leon Russell on the record of the same name, which is a bona fide classic album for both artists. There has not been anything though, in contrast to The Beatles Anthologoy and the History of the Eagles, that comprehensively tackles the musical story behind the creation of John’s back catalogue.
Why does this need to be done? Walk down the street in London or New York and ask someone random what Elton John brings to mind. They might start wailing Rocket Man or Your Song at you. Due to the sad cult of celebrity, you’ll probably also hear a great deal of inaccurate or exaggerated stories about flowers, drugs, sunglasses collections, the royal family and god knows what else.
Your average music fan would know about the history behind every album The Beatles recorded and would be very familiar with many of the deep cuts. To have that level of expertise on the Elton John catalogue is far more unusual and you might be described as a “super fan” as a result. John Lennon said that Elton John was “the first new thing that’s happened since we (The Beatles) happened.” The records that Elton John has gone on to create should be treasured as one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the history of popular music, equal in quality and diversity to that of The Beatles. Songs like Amoreena from Tumbleweed Connection, High Flying Bird from Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, Little Jeannie from 21 at 33 – a forgotten number 3 Billboard 100 hit – and, certainly, Harmony from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road would still receive regular radio play if Elton John and his band had not, somehow, become too often underrated by music snobs. More people would also have heard A Good Heart from his astonishing new record, Wonderful Crazy Night.
How then do we make sure that Elton John is not just remembered for his Greatest Hits and five decades of tabloid headlines, but as the Mozart of the pop era? We need a detailed documentary about the music. Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, Caribou, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirty Cowboy, Blue Moves, Too Low For Zero, The One, Made In England, Songs From The West Coast and The Union are absolutely outstanding records and the stories behind all of them deserve to be told. Their influence also needs to be celebrated and I’m sure many highly respected musicians, from Eminem to Ed Sheeran to Eric Clapton to Brian Wilson, could offer hugely insightful comments on the songs themselves, as opposed to some generic sycophantic comment they’ve been asked to make for an award show.
I would also argue that forgotten gems like The Thom Bell Sessions EP, the Peachtree Road record and singles that never made it on any ‘best of’ compilation, such as Skyline Pigeon, Cage the Songbird, Healing Hands, Believe and Original Sin could also do with being resurrected and I can think of no better way to do so. The narrative would be fascinating, with analysis of how too much of this incredible music has been lost as a result of John himself becoming more famous than his own compositions.
Similarly, the case would also be made for the Elton John Band to be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in the same way that the Oscar winning 20 Feet From Stardom follows the lives of unfairly uncredited backing singers such as Judith Hill, Darlene Love and Jo Lawry. Nigel Olsson, the late Dee Murray, Davey Johnstone and Ray Cooper should all be heralded as some of the world’s best rock musicians of all time and their part in creating some of the finest records ever made should be acknowledged more.
I don’t care if it’s by Netflix or the same phillistines currently funding production of The Only Way Is Essex, this documentary should be made. As part of my ‘day job’ running the sustainable fashion brand that created The 30 Year Sweatshirt, I had the honour of meeting Andrew Morgan, whose groundbreaking film The True Cost unravels the exploitative and cruel world of the clothing industry. Our discussion got sidetracked from fashion to music and film, and I told him of a documentary that I’d recently dreamt up, entitled Burn Down The Mission, that would be Elton John’s Searching For Sugar Man moment. I only hope a documentary maker of Andrew’s calibre who specialises in music agrees with him and me that it would make for essential viewing.