Elton John and Leon Russell co-create on HBO
I have a new teaching aid for co-creation: the HBO documentary by Cameron Crowe showing how Elton John and Leon Russell came together to produce a new CD called The Union (this is also the name of the documentary). On the analytical side, it shows how two people coming together initiated the development of a global community of fans (the record opened up at number 1 on Amazon in 2010 and rose to number 3 on the Billboard charts). On the experiential side, the story provides a window on the beautiful mind of Elton John and bears witness to the second birth of Leon Russell (“I was in a ditch and he treated me like a king”). The words of Elton John describing the transformative power of the experience on himself offer a better motivation for co-creation than any of us “experts” will ever provide.
The documentary starts with Elton John in a middle-aged funk, wondering how to avoid having to record a Christmas album for his label. He suddenly remembers the early influence on his piano playing of the American song writer and performer Leon Russell, once a pioneering rock star in the late 60s-early 70s, now a marginal musician in Nashville, Tennessee. He approaches Russell, a grouchy, tired 67 year old with this unlikely proposition: “Let’s make a record together, full 50-50 partnership, I’m renting a studio, let’s get on with it, what do you say?”
The early collaboration is awkward. Russell does not really understand what Elton John wants from him and why he’s there, complete with a camera crew filming a documentary on the creative process (“what are we going to do together for two days?”). Elton John’s approach is to pick a few standards and get Leon jamming. Early on, Russell suffers a major setback in the form of a brain incident requiring hospitalization, from which he comes back quite diminished. Elton John hangs around, relentless and passionate. He puts songs in front of him, patiently drawing him out.
As trust starts growing from the early timid sessions, Leon Russell comes alive. The perceptive camera of Cameron Crowe catches the early twinkle in his eye, particularly when a group of female singers comes in to provide back-up vocals on one of the songs. The rewiring of Leon Russell has started, giving him access to the talent of a broader cast of characters than he’s had in a long time. (As he touchingly confesses, he’s grown used to doing everything himself, playing the keyboards, the guitar, the drums and doing the singing). At some point, he begins to realize the opportunity he’s been offered. One morning, he shows up frantically looking for a piano to compose the music to some lyrics he’s developed overnight. The song, entitled In the Hands of Angels, is too well-meaning to be effective musically, but shows a man transformed.
The co-creative process is gently managed by T Bone Burnett, the record producer. He’s the ego-less voice of the public, subtly guiding both artists through gentle nudging. Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist, is never far behind in the ecosystem, at least in spirit (Elton John states in the movie that in thirty years of collaboration, Taupin has never witnessed the development of the music by Elton John in a studio, thereby showing that co-creative interactions can be remote, yet powerful). We feel privileged to watch just that, particularly when Elton John puts together the introduction to the haunting “Gone to Shiloh” and Elton and Leon start harmonizing. There again, something in the eyes of Elton John suddenly illuminates, and one cannot help but feel the power of creative voices coming together.
Perhaps the more remarkable part in the collaboration of the two artists is the fact that Elton John, the artist with the most powerful “bargaining power” of the two, never uses it to push Leon to do what he wants. Our entire business model is predicated on the notion that success comes from creating a competitive advantage and exploiting it. For Elton John, value derives less from exerting his clout than from connecting with a disadvantaged human being in a creative new way. Connecting human experiences is the new source of competitive advantage. May Michael Porter forgive me!