December 12, 2008

DVD Review: Elton John - Tantrums & Tiaras

Unlike a lot of superstars, Elton John recognizes the contradictions between his admittedly insular, extravagant lifestyle and the comparatively average ones most others lead. So when in 1995 he allowed his partner, David Furnish, to record his day-to-day activities for a documentary, he likely knew that such unrestricted access would cast him in a vulnerable — and perhaps unflattering — light. That the depiction would be so compelling, however, he may not have altogether foreseen.

Originally released in 1997 and now officially available on DVD, Tantrums & Tiaras holds up quite well in rendering the conflicting realities of one of music’s enduring legends. In addition to the feature film, this new edition includes several previously deleted clips, up-to-date commentary by Elton John and David Furnish, as well as relative supplemental footage.

Filmed around the time when Elton John released his album, Made In England, the film finds the musician in flurry of promotional appearances, interviews, publicity shoots, and live performances. All of this — barring a few memorable instances, like his tirade on the set of the “Believe” video — he handles with equal amounts composure and confidence.

It’s what occupies his time between these endeavors — more practical concerns, like the tacit obligations of his relationship to Furnish — that invariably cause John some measure of frustration and, by extension, yield the film’s most affecting content. Seeking a balance between one’s career and one’s personal life is no easy task for many individuals and, as he readily acknowledges here, such is a perpetual challenge for Elton John as well.

A particularly telling scene occurs — captured while the couple is on holiday in the South of France — when the contradictions of John’s life unwittingly converge. Furnish suggests some outdoor recreations that he would enjoy sharing with his partner, that the two could enjoy together. With a pained yet unwavering expression, John rejects each one out of hand — either because his celebrity would draw unwanted attention or from sheer disinterest — before ultimately conceding to “consider” taking a walk with Furnish on a remote part of the beach. It becomes evident (to viewers, but heartbreakingly so to Furnish as well) that, at least at this point, Elton John feels far more comfortable in his role as a famous musician than in that of an intimate relationship.

Rather than inflating the DVD with irrelevant filler, the bonus material included here further serves the function and overall quality of the film. Candor humorously extends to camp, as in one clip when John flashes just enough skin during a photo session to make Madonna blush; in another, he preens before a mirror, dressed in drag, all but oblivious to a lasciviously clad Kylie Minogue playfully wiggling her tuckus in the same room.

Among such revelry, though, lay one profoundly bittersweet segment. In a video taped the same year as the documentary, the late Gianni Versace reflects on his close friendship with Elton John. It’s jolting to watch — as the iconic fashion designer, looking vibrant, speaks with eloquent regard toward his pal — against the context of his assassination less than two years later.

Clichéd though it may sound, it doesn’t make it any less accurate: For Elton John, it all does come back to the music and at the heart of Tantrums & Tiaras lay his exceptional talent. The film wisely yields little in the way of sensationalizing his career — his success is sensational on its own — but instead offers a refreshingly unfiltered and intriguing glimpse of the opposing forces that define his life.