Grunge, gangsta rap, and electronica — like punk rock before them — make it unfashionable for musicians to admit to wanting a vast, varied audience. Popular music long ago fractured into a series of cults — cults each made up of millions, to be sure, but organized around the notion that music ought to be a private club, for which you have to know the right buzzwords, the right attitudes, the right acts to idolize for a year or so, before a new, approved set of them comes along.
In this context, anyone who still thinks his or her music should appeal to everyone — should cut across all genres and tastes — seems at once brave and ludicrous, two adjectives that apply very well to a pair of pop-music overachievers: Elton John, the subject of an entrancing 1996 documentary, Tantrums and Tiaras, premiering this week, and Garth Brooks, whose recent Garth Live From Central Park will be repeated by HBO in an unscrambled broadcast free to all cabled viewers on Sept. 13.
Tantrums is certainly true to its title. Directed by David Furnish, John’s companion since 1993, it’s a loving portrait of the pop star as an aging, petulant queen. We watch our Elton pout, preen, and throw championship hissy fits when an assistant misplaces a bag of clothes or when a fan distracts Herself (John is fond of referring to himself in the feminine) by waving to the singer as he plays a game of tennis. And yes, John does own a tiara, which he takes with him when he travels, along with indulgences like six drawers full of eyeglasses.
It’s always fun to watch rock stars behaving naughtily (remember Madonna’s Truth or Dare?). It’s worth subscribing to Cinemax just to witness Elton and some chums viewing 1995’s Oscar telecast, offering catty commentary about important cinematic matters like the size of Jennifer Tilly’s derriere. But Tantrums is more than camp excessiveness. Furnish nudges John to talk frankly about his drug and alcohol addictions, captures moving scenes of the star with his mother and grandmother, and, best of all, details John’s devotion to his music.
Tantrums was filmed during the release of Elton’s most recent album, Made in England, and we see John giving interviews, making videos, performing in concert, and keeping a meticulous notebook charting the rise and fall of the album’s singles on the world’s record charts. John comes across as being as much a rock fan as a rock star, as much a tough old buzzard as a vulnerable workaholic.
Ultimately, there’s something about the foolhardy, overwrought desire of both Garth Brooks and Elton John to unite a universal pop audience that, once you dig beneath their individual pop-star glossiness, makes them seem a little desperate but also — strangely enough — downright heroic. A-