Saturday, May 30, 2009

Concert Blu-ray Review: Elton John -- The Red Piano -- Live from Las Vegas (2008)

Sir Elton John's
Sold-Out Las Vegas Concert Experience
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Never one to skirt around an issue-- although Elton John jokes that on the one hand, Las Vegas is the place “where musicians go to die,” on the other he acknowledges that “there's only so much Cirque du Soleil you can see.” So thankfully-- giving audiences a break from the inventive yet exhaustive array of acrobatics on display in Sin City-- in 2004 he took over the Caesars Palace Auditorium previously home to Celine Dion (whom he jokingly refers to as “the singing q-tip”). And with this in mind, he decided to bring a little Elton energy to town.

Building a theme entirely around the color red which to John signifies love which is a recurring through-line in the music he’s composed over forty years with his long time lyricist Bernie Taupin, Sir Elton John kicked off an enviable record breaking run of more than 200 sold out visually dynamic live concert performances dubbed simply The Red Piano.

And despite the fact that over thousands of people have flocked to the show to try and nab one of the 4,100 seats in the gorgeous, acoustically impressive yet intimate auditorium to dance along to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” fortunately both for historical reasons and out of necessity in this economy, The Red Piano has been transferred by Universal Music Group to DVD and Blu-ray high definition.

Whether it’ll make a valuable keepsake for the devoted audience who mouth along the words to such beloved greatest hits as “Daniel,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Candle in the Wind,” and “Your Song,” over the course of his fourteen track concert or offer the rest of us to see it for the first time—it’s a terrific move by executive producer Clive Banks and one that helps augment the multi-layered experience.

Although The Red Piano can be simply viewed as a concert, Elton John wanted to ensure that he was going to deliver something unique, creative, and fun to crowds in the city where anything and everything goes. In doing so, he consulted his good friend and artistic photographer David LaChapelle for an inspired creation that consisted of “multi-color neon sculpture, pop art, inflatables, bottles, balloons and the band.”

Additionally, since LaChapelle—whose impressive videography and portraiture of musicians including Britney Spears and Madonna have caught the attention of the industry-- had been a long time and highly knowledgeable fan of the music and the man, John gave him free range in the design. Or as John noted in the Blu-ray liner notes, he told LaChapelle to “go ahead and do what you want” in terms of creating innovative, short film interpretations of certain songs in John’s set list.

Projecting LaChapelle’s videos using state-of-the-art technically superior equipment on a screen that runs 120 feet wide by 40 feet tall, the videos in tandem with the music pounded away by a spirited John via a magnificent cherry-red piano on a stage filled with extravagant “only in Vegas” props certainly begs a repeat viewing due to the sheer overwhelm of the sensory experience.

While John’s performance is dynamic per usual as he banters with the audience and makes good-natured jokes about Dion, at times the short films accompanying the songs ultimately detract from the remarkable power of the music. Of course, in Vegas, it’s expected to go above in beyond in a presentation to remember and Red Piano succeeds on many levels with a few very beautiful pieces including the Marilyn Monroe (and possibly a look-alike) filled “Candle in the Wind,” and “Daniel” which—despite an eerily over-sexualized image of a bare-chested boy at the beginning laying in the foreground before he evolves into a man tells an earnest tale of loss from childhood to war, fully grasping the haunting pain of Taupin’s songwriting.

Moving to a classical black and white simplistic style of a solo man dancing his heart out in “Believe” is quite effective but honestly though, in the end even that track becomes repetitive as the near art-installation style of the films use the same imagery throughout.

The most twisted interpretation of a track, which as we see in the documentary also caught a band member off guard as he acknowledges that in the end the LaChapelle takes are “just one man’s impression of the songs,” comes in the form of a surprisingly violent and rather ugly domestic abuse ballet played throughout “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

Getting us fully immersed into the Vegas lifestyle-- “Pinball Wizard” relishes in the seedily, sexually charged erotic nightlife of adult entertainment in Vegas with plenty of shots of strippers and female entertainers gone wild before it leads up to a gratuitous, obvious, and uninspired stripper pole dance by Pamela Anderson throughout “The Bitch Is Back.” (Needless to say, parents may want to preview the unrated work before popping it in for the entire family.)

While it’s safe to say you may prefer your own personal music videos that play in your head to the songs or even some of the traditional ones—which in fact LaChapelle seems to parody in “Rocket Man” as a look at Elton’s fame and nature of celebrity—luckily they just serve as a background throughout the hyper-edited concert on the Blu-ray.

However, the rapid number of edits that initially cut in time with the music as seen in the opener “Bennie and the Jets,” takes a near The Bourne Ultimatum style two second ADD approach that finds your eyes straining to adjust from one quick movement to the next damn near ruin your appreciation of the beloved hit. Luckily, though eventually the style gives way to a bit more fluid movement throughout… at least most of the time.

The high definition quality of the disc is stellar indeed given its terrifically transferred concert level sound although strangely despite the fact that it boasts several subtitles in a wide variety of languages, I couldn’t even get English to work to see if there was a “read the lyrics option.” However, the picture suffers slightly from grainy and muddied color appearance during the concert footage that most likely can be attributed to the neon lights and challenging color reflection on the camera that gives the edges a soft feel.

The gorgeous night shots of Vegas that open the disc are exquisitely captured in HD, seemingly confirming the visual challenges in “cleaning up” or augmenting the concert’s look but the option of watching LaChapelle’s short films alone (either by flipping back and forth between the event and his work or choosing one option altogether) emphasizes the technical superiority of the format with their crystal clear transfer.

All in all, it’s a great opportunity to catch the concert without the cost of travel and tickets in these affordably priced releases. And while honestly I would’ve preferred a bit more Elton (and far fewer cuts) in the place of some of the distracting and downright unappealing video work completed by LaChapelle that takes away from the heartfelt earnestness of the music that made it so special-- Red Piano still made for an entertaining spectacle, even if personally I think I’d prefer Elton John in concert over The Red Piano any day of the week.

(Photo Source)

For, since music is the soundtrack of everyone’s life and John’s in particular has definitely been a part of so many lives and was one of the defining musical catalogs of the twentieth century--- I believe it would’ve benefited the work to incorporate that. Perhaps it could’ve been done in the place of even swapping out a few of the LaChapelle videos with some of the beloved footage dedicated to the man and his music like the Almost Famous “Tiny Dancer” sequence as a lead-in to that track or—despite it not being on the set list—the gorgeously simplistic music video of Robert Downey Jr. simply mouthing the words to “I Want Love” (view it here) as he walks from room to room that emphasizes John’s universal appeal in lieu of just one personal and mostly distracting vision.

Disc Details

DVD & Blu-ray:

[Band Instrumental Performance]

1. Bennie and the Jets

2. Philadelphia Freedom *

3. Believe *

4. Daniel *

5. Rocket Man *

6. Answer In The Sky *

7. Tiny Dancer

[Band Introduction]

8. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On *

9. Candle In The Wind *

[Elton Suit Change / Vegas Montage Footage]

10. Pinball Wizard *

11. Bitch Is Back *

12. I’m Still Standing *

13. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting *


14. Your Song

Blu-ray Only Extras:

1) Documentary [50 mins]:
The Life and Legacy of Elton John, with behind-the-scenes of David LaChapelle’s Red Piano treatment of Elton’s live stage show.

2) David LaChapelle Stage Projections:

The unique raw videos made for the stage back drop for tracks marked on the Blu-ray with a heart to switch back and forth between the concert and the short films (or with * as noted above).

Best Buy Co, Inc.