Perhaps the most pressing problem facing a natural showman like Elton John is how to age gracefully, when one's style and instincts are to behave outrageously. There's the Mick Jagger method, although this stretches the notion of "graceful" to breaking point and entails a devotion to exercise and a natural propensity to litheness, both of which, one suspects, are hardly highest on Sir Elton John's "must-do" list. Another is to surround oneself with well-drilled, ripped dancers, as Madonna does – though one might look flabby by comparison.
It's no surprise, then, to find Elton adopting a more painless method for the Red Piano, the Las Vegas extravaganza he has brought to London's O2 Arena, which basically consists of handing over responsibility to celebrity director/photographer David LaChapelle, then plonking oneself in the middle with a piano.
The show features two main components: a broad, shiny black stage with a serious rake tilting towards the audience, with the red piano perched atop a star-shaped pedestal; and a huge screen backdrop showing LaChapelle's visual realisations of the songs. What this means is that, once Elton has sat down and launched into "Bennie and the Jets", one's attention is almost monopolised by the projections, many of which refer to Elton's Seventies heyday. For "Philadelphia Freedom", there is an animated pop-art collage in which a younger Elton shares space with Charles Atlas, burlesque dancers and period graphic flourishes; for "Daniel", a more sober montage of monochrome Vietnam footage; while in the most protracted clip, for "Rocket Man", another young Elton – now played by Justin Timberlake – makes his way from dressing room to stage, through crowds of period-costumed well-wishers and autograph-hunters.
While the films impose time restrictions on the performance, the extended "Rocket Man" one allows for some degree of extemporisation, including an ending that features a sparkling piano solo in bluesy New Orleans style. (It is also noticeable that, vocally, Elton no longer attempts to hit the highest notes, but compensates with a more soulful delivery.)
It's the most overtly musical moment of a show that prizes spectacle over sound, often pushing the boundaries of taste in characteristically mischievous manner. At other times, we're treated to giant inflatable roses, hot-dogs, ice creams, and a cheeky, ooer-missus cherries-and-banana combo, while in the film for "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", a platform-soled younger Elton sticks his head in a gas oven and ascends to a peculiar heaven featuring a semi-naked afro-tressed girl in an electric chair, a purple teddy bear dancing on skates, and enough white powder to host the Winter Olympics. What can it all mean?
Don't bother asking Elton: almost four decades on, he's still trying to figure out what the lyrics to "Take Me to the Pilot" are all about, as he confides during one of the chatty intros with which the show is punctuated, the cattiest of which comes when he thanks the crowd for coming out to see him on such a rainy night, and in the face of such tempting televisual alternatives. "Tonight's the final of X-Factor, and there's Strictly Come Dancing too," he observes. "And you know what? I'd rather have my cock bitten off by an Alsatian than watch either."
How ironic then that, as we're all leaving the Dome following the set-closing "Your Song", the venue's PA repeatedly announces that for Elton's New Year's Eve show, he will be supported by "X Factor winner Alexandra Burke." Somewhere backstage a large dog was hunting for its dinner.
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