Elton John Rocks Chilly Crowd at Tribeca Opener

Tenth edition of the festival in Lower Manhattan got underway Wednesday with an al fresco screening of Cameron Crowe affectionate documentary about the making of Elton John's latest album

New York City–“I’m frozen like a big lollipop, and I mean big lollipop, up here,” singer Elton John, poking fun at his own increasing stoutness, told an appreciative crowd at last night’s chilly al fresco kick-off of the 10th Tribeca Film Festival.

John was the star attraction, both on screen and on stage, at the festival’s opening night, which took place in lower Manhattan–the festival was founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro as a way to help the downtown neighborhood recover from 9/11–at the outdoor plaza of the World Financial Center complex, which borders the Hudson River and is just paces from Ground Zero.

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The event was open to the public–though would-be attendees had to line up ahead of time to receive wristbands to gain admission–along with invited guests. A festival spokesman said afterward that the crowd numbered 5,500 persons.

On screen, John appeared in the world premiere of “The Union,” director Cameron Crowe’s affectionate documentary chronicling the making of John’s latest album, also called “The Union,” which was released last October. For the album, Sir Elton reunited with singer-musician Leon Russell, with whom he’d toured in his early days.

Following the screening of the 90-minute movie, which was projected onto a 25 ft. by 50 ft. temporary screen, John took to the stage for a mini-concert. Bundled up in a long white muffler to ward off the chilly winds coming off the river, he sat solo at a Yamaha piano and pounded out six songs, including such old favorites as “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer” and a couple tunes from the new album.

For John, as the documentary makes clear, the album was a chance to refocus the spotlight on Russell, whom he considers a major figure in the musical pantheon. When John, now 64, called Russell up in 2009 and suggested that they collaborate, it had been 38 years since the two men had talked. In the intervening years, John’s career had continued to soar while Russell, now 69, headed toward obscurity, playing in small clubs for not much money.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the greatest piano player ever,” John says of Russell in the documentary, which captures the pair at recording sessions and later in concert. It also makes use of archival footage, amusing in the case of John, revisiting his outrageous, glam-rock phase in the 1970s, and instructive in the case of Russell, making clear the key role he played as a session player and songwriter for many big names in music in the ‘60s and ‘70s (including the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, the Beatles’ George Harrison, Joe Cocker, Rita Coolidge and Aretha Franklin).

The festival’s opening was light on celebrity attendees, though actors Jeffrey Wright and Anna Kendrick were spotted in the crowd. Before the movie, the Bangles singing group, joined by youngsters from the chorus at a local public school, P.S. 22, sang an enthusiastic version of the ‘80s hit, “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Comic Denis Leary served as M.C. on stage before Crowe’s film, telling the crowd that he was on the festival’s short films jury this year. He jokingly advised competing filmmakers, “I’m taking bribes. If you want to win, I’m the guy to talk to.” Also appearing was director Martin Scorsese, who introduced Crowe’s film, who said, “For me, music and movies have been inseparable.”

Neither Crowe nor Russell were able to attend last night, but each greeted the crowd via video shoutouts. Crowe’s was taped on the set of “We Bought a Zoo,” the film he is currently making. Star Matt Damon, standing behind Crowe, piped up with, “Thank you, Robert De Niro.”

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Rain, though forecast, held off all night, but having the event outdoors presented another set of challenges. Temperatures dipped to 50 or lower, which may explain why many in the crowd continued during the screening to drink wine or heated beverages, though it does less to excuse their smoking and insistence on carrying on conversations. The emphasis for many attendees, at least on Tribeca’s opening night, decidedly seemed to be on festival rather than on film.

The festival runs through May 1, during more than 90 feature films will be screened, including 47 world premieres. 

(Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)