Elton John’s been sharing his music with the world for nearly half a century now, tugging our heartstrings and shuffling our shoes with classic albums like Caribou, Honky Chateau, Madman Across the Water, Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy, and Reg Strikes Back.
“My gift is my song,” Sir Elton famously sang on his 1970 eponymous album. “This one’s for you.”
Clearly, John’s “song” is a gift that keeps on giving: The man born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in Middlesex, England 67 years ago has sold more albums (300 million) than any other non-Beatle save Elvis Presley, whose early records inspired young Elton to rock. He’s released over 30 albums, boasts an astounding fifty Top 40 hits, and was a constant chart presence from the late ‘70s through the 2000s—all despite (or in some cases because of) prevailing musical trends, ever-shifting audience tastes, and consolidation / reformatting of commercial radio.
The flamboyant voice behind “Bennie and The Jets” and “Tiny Dancer” boasts an impressive collection of Tony, Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards. John was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in ’96, and was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2004. He’s performed over 4,000 concerts in his career (including hundreds of team-up shows with fellow “Piano Man” Billy Joel), founded his own record label (Rocket), and is a noted philanthropist, having lent his wealth and fame to charitable causes for AIDS research and LGBT empowerment.
Even after all this time, he’s still standing: John issued his 31st album—The Diving Board—in 2013, and this Spring he just wrapped a world tour marking the 40th anniversary of Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road. During the intervening months, John enjoyed another residency at The Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, where he regaled packed audiences from an elaborate stage whose centerpiece was a state-of-the-art grand piano tricked out with a translucent top and LED screens whose video displays corresponded to its environs.
Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, Elton John: The Million Dollar Piano (Eagle Rock) documents the megastar’s most recent 16-gig Caesar’s stand and celebrates his long-term partnership with Yamaha, whose engineers constructed the dazzling, titular sci-fi instrument.
John hosted a similar event (The Red Piano) at the legendary Neveda venue a decade ago, but Million Dollar Piano—launched in 2011—took Elton’s already elaborate concert experience to new levels with its lavish lighting schemes and sublime musical arrangements. Conceived by designer Patrick Woodroofe and late producer Mark Fisher, the updated show saw Sir Elton and his crack band thrill concertgoers with a marathon of hits (and a couple obscure tracks) from his prodigious back catalog, all staged amidst the dramatic visuals provided by a massive video backdrop, swooping gels, and the piano’s uber-cool onboard tech.
Rather than source video from any one gig, John’s editors have painstakingly assembled footage from several nights (taken from multiple cameras) into one seamless multimedia medley. In other words, the DVD provides the best of the best. John and his accompanists wore the same attire each time out, so there are few if any continuity issues, and only the keenest viewers might detect something amiss that’d suggest these familiar tunes weren’t all sourced from the same two-hour spectacle (we didn’t notice anything).
Striding onstage to Strauss’ bombastic (but fitting) “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the overture from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), a caped Sir Elton takes a quick bow before warming the ivories on an uppity “The Bitch is Back” and psychedelic “Benny and The Jets.” The Yamaha beams to life on “Rocket Man,” its screens casting images of starry skies and a crimson-hued Mars through the tune’s still-heartbreaking “I’m not the man they think I am at home” refrain.
Greeting the crowd (and, indirectly, his home audience), John explains that he nicknamed his five touring pianos after his favorite female musicians (Aretha, Diana, Nina, etc.). The piano used on the “Red” tour was dubbed—rather appropriately—Nikita.
The sparkling Million Dollar Piano? Blossom.
“It has an aquarium built into it,” says Elton, whose voice is huskier than it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s but is just as strong—and perhaps even more soulful.
Demonstrating the Yamaha’s magic powers, Elton teases fans with a snippet of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” as the instrument’s side panel projects images of his older self singing the bubbly 1976 #1 pop hit with Kiki Dee. A passenger jet graces the piano on “Daniel,” whose first verse speaks of “traveling tonight on a plane.”
“I’m waiting for some airlines to call me with some commercial offers,” jokes the black-suited John.
The piano—which cost closer to $1.5 million—effectively becomes a mirror throughout the concert, showing video clips whose themes either match the music or subtly compliment the stage lights. Or one might think of it as the instrumental equivalent of a chameleon—not an inaccurate analogy, given Elton’s penchant for mixing things up in both the musical and wardrobe departments.
Accordingly, a touching black and white film is displayed during “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (dedicated to the people of New York after the events of 9/11) and vintage shots of Elizabeth Taylor flicker on the elegant “Blue Eyes.” A clever video montage of Elton hits both old and new appears during “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” while “Crocodile Rock” is set to a scaly green motif. “Philadelphia Freedom” is suitably framed with bicentennial red, white, and blue.
The DVD liner notes indicate that Woodroofe and Fisher based the production on Louis XVII, the French king who built The Versailles. Reimagining Elton as a modern-day “Sun King” of Vegas, they bathe the entertainer in gold and amber lights when no particular theme is called for, and the color schemes makes for inspired lighting choices on sun-centered tunes like “Indian Sunset” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
Over-the-shoulder camera angles afford spectators privileged glances at Elton’s handiwork on the keys and vocal prowess on the microphone. Occasionally, “Reg” bolts up from his piano stool and pumps a fist or thrusts a finger in the air for emphasis, drawing onlookers into each moment.
The backup band is phenomenal (and the mix is great). Ever-present guitarist Davey Johnstone switches guitars (and mandolins) as needed, and at one point plays an axe with a “Captain Fantastic” paint job. Wearing white gloves, drummer Nigel Olsson is an ace timekeeper. Keyboardist Kim Bullard adds synth flourishes on a Kurzweil, and percussionist John Mahone decorates the tracks with timbale and chimes. Another percussionist—the legendary Ray Cooper—shares the stage alone with Elton on “Better Off Dead. Bob Birch provides reliable rhythm—and some low melodies—on his five-string, his stance and physical demeanor evoking a quiet, benevolent bear.
Sadly, Birch passed away in 2012 (the DVD is dedicated to him and Woodroofe).
Elton is backed by vocalists Rose Stone, Tata Vega, Jean Witherspoon, and Lisa Stone, all of whom add extra flair to Bernie Taupin’s beloved lyrics and employ a bit o’ body language during “Levon” and “I’m Still Standing.” The ensemble is joined by cellists Sjepan Hauser and Luka Sulik—the dapper-dressed duo known for their classical interpretations of songs by AC/DC, U2, and Michael Jackson.
Prize-winning fans are allowed to storm the stage during finale “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting).” It was surely a thrill for them, but they swarm around Elton and his piano, obscuring the view for other Colosseum attendees (and home viewers). And one can’t help but suspect Elton didn’t exactly enjoy people shoving their iPod cameras in his face the entire six minutes. Couldn’t they have just waited for the DVD, like the rest of us?
Ah, but the riff-raff are cleared from the stage for the encore, allowing Elton and company to nail The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” with cinematic bravura.
We had the opportunity to see Elton live (again) in Youngstown, Ohio this past winter. He played one of the five “normal” pianos at that show, but otherwise that set so closely resembles the material here (minus the exclusion of “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding”) that DVD makes for a nice souvenir. We recommend it highly to anybody else hoping to relive the enchantment of the current tour—and for anyone who hasn’t yet witnessed the Elton John phenomenon in concert.
Bonus features including a “making of” documentary and four additional selections (“Candle in the Wind,” “Sacrifice,” “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” recorded in concert in Kiev.