Judge Clark Douglas still thinks sorry seems to be the hardest word.
"Some of these lyrics, I have no idea what they mean."—Elton John
I admit it: I'm an Elton John fan. I absolutely love his early output (from about 1970 to 1976 or so), and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy remains one of my favorite albums of all time. EJ lost his way for about fifteen years after that, allowing drugs and depression to seriously tarnish his output. Sure, he still put out the occasional stellar hit every now and then, but he was merely a shadow of his former self. Thanks to the success of his songs written for The Lion King in 1994 (and Elton's decision to finally sober up), the singer/songwriter's career became respectable once again. These days, Elton has found a comfortable place in the world of pop/rock, putting out critically, well-regarded albums every three years or so and performing a steady gig at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. This disc offers a performance of Elton's current show, entitled The Red Piano.
Produced by the acclaimed David LaChapelle, The Red Piano is a fairly lavish affair featuring splendid set design and lots of visual goodies. An eye-popping red piano ("I wanted red because red represents love, and you don't hear enough about love in the news today," Elton explains) sits atop a large glittering star on the stage, and when Sir Elton arrives to take his place, the crowd goes mad with a fervor that's remarkable even by concert DVD standards. The set begins with a rousing performance of "Bennie and the Jets," an always-entertaining number that begins the show on an appropriately energetic note. Elton is in a particularly jovial mood here, cheerfully informing the crowd, "Welcome to Caesar's Palace, the home of Celine Dion…but not tonight!" He continues with his Philly Soul hit "Philadelphia Freedom" before pulling out a somewhat unexpected tune, the impressive "Believe" from his 1995 Made in England album.
Next up is "Daniel," a song I quite like, but I didn't much care for the performance here. It's a delicate song, and Elton gives it a blustery bombast that doesn't do the tune any favors. The same applies to "Rocket Man," ("I'm a RAWH-kit MAAAAAAN!" he belts), though a cool piano solo at the conclusion helps improve things. Another small surprise is the appearance of the relatively recent "Answer in the Sky," an uplifting number just one use of the name "Jesus" away from being a church choir song. Elton then plays an entertaining trick on the audience, doing about ten seconds of several hits songs ("I'm Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," "Crocodile Rock," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road") before deciding that he doesn't feel like playing each one. He finally settles on "Tiny Dancer," and provides a wonderful take on that song (it's easily one of the better ballad performances of the set).
Next up is "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," another reasonably successful ballad performance, despite the fact that Elton just can't hit those high notes anymore. The trio of ballads concludes with "Candle in the Wind," which as you might expect is the traditional version written about Marilyn Monroe rather than the re-written version adapted for Princess Diana's funeral. A drastic change in course is signaled by the landing of a giant pinball on the stage, which is of course accompanied by a feverish version of "Pinball Wizard." This is followed by Elton's diva anthem, "The Bitch is Back," oddly backed up by images of a chesty stripper and a giant pair of inflatable naked boobs turning up to threaten the crowd with ten-foot-long nipples. So I guess it's the official breast anthem now? All right then. The invigorating "I'm Still Standing" (one of Elton's better songs of the 1980s) is up next, accompanied by, uh, giant inflatable unpeeled bananas with ripe cherries sitting at the base. Oh, so that's what that song means! This breathlessly leads into the Rolling Stones-inspired "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting." Members of the crowd rush up on the stage and much chaos ensues. Confetti! Balloons! Naked stuff! Things conclude on a quiet note with a performance of "Your Song," the one number that Elton performs at every single concert. After all these years, it remains a very affecting love song.
Throughout the set, Elton pokes fun of his Las Vegas competitors. "Have you seen that Celine Dion show? She's a singing Q-tip. I @!ing hate her." Later on he takes digs at Cirque de Soleil and other acts in town. Having seen several of his concerts on DVD, I can say that Elton certainly is a lot chattier here than he has been in his previous shows, telling jokes, stories, and generally rambling about whatever is on his mind at the moment. At one point he even threatens to pull out Little Sir Elton, which the crowd responds to with a blend of horror and delight.
I should also mention that David LaChappelle provides video accompaniment to each song, and we see a pretty significant portion of this in the background during the performance. These videos are somewhat hit-and-miss, ranging from good (a touching explanation of the meaning of "Daniel") to bad (a somewhat pointless interpretive dance accompanying "Believe") to just plain bizarre (topless women jumping around during "Philadelphia Freedom" and a bit of inexplicable erotic church graveyard action in "Answer in the Sky" that must be seen to be believed). Whatever you may think of these, they're certainly artfully produced and eye-catching. LaChappelle also adds plenty of '70s-themed props that he litters across the stage liberally.
The DVD transfer is solid, if not quite remarkable. Flesh tones seem a little off at times, and there's just a bit of color bleeding at times, too. The cinematography tends to be rather soft, but the level of detail is reasonably solid under the circumstances. What really matters here is the audio, and fortunately this disc rocks about as hard as an ordinary DVD can. This is a terrific-sounding live performance that is sure to make your living room tremble. Great distribution and aggressively engaging bass make this one a great listen. There are no extras included on the disc. The DVD lists the running time as "approximately 153 minutes," which is one heck of an approximation considering that it's actually 98 minutes.
Fans of the singer will undoubtedly enjoy this disc, a more lively and entertaining experience than Elton's previous concert DVD, One Night Only. My only concern is that the R-rated content included here may scare fans of the singer's generally PG-rated music. Otherwise, The Red Piano is a very effective presentation.
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