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Joni Mitchell Rewrites ‘I’m Still Standing’ and Metallica Slays ‘Love Lies Bleeding,’ Among Standouts in PBS’ Touching Elton John/Bernie Taupin Tribute: TV Review Print-ready version

by Chris Willman
April 8, 2024


Even on a day when much of America was hoping to see the sun go out, there's still an ongoing need to hear someone sing "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." That, among many other things, is what's offered in tonight's PBS broadcast of a tribute special for Elton John and Bernie Taupin, two of the worthiest talents ever to be awarded the Library of Congress' Gershwin Prize. If you're a fan - and who isn't?, as they say - the two-hour show will provide a total eclipse of all your other most pressing entertainment needs.

Three words: "Joni Mitchell" and "Metallica." If this salute never moved out of the M's, it would be worthy enough just based on those two highlights alone, neither of whom probably seemed like the likeliest Elton interpreter. But there they are, on the very same bingo card. That's not to slight very fine performances from Brandi Carlile, Annie Lennox and the like - or Elton himself, who closes out the program with a mini-set - but sometimes it's the novelties that stick with you when masters stack up against masters.

In the most memorable moment of the night, Mitchell covers "I'm Still Standing," which is as appropriate as it sounds, given her physical recovery in recent years. It's also much funnier than you're expecting. Carlile (who assists on vocals, along with Lennox) introduces Mitchell's cover version by saying that "this is a song that holds special meaning for her" and that "she was given the green light by Elton and Bernie to change some of the lyrics to fit her, which is honestly the most Joni Mitchell thing I think I've ever heard of." From that, you might expect that Mitchell will have rewritten the lyrics to make them more inspirational somehow - because this is one of those songs that everyone remembers for its uplifting chorus but no one remembers has kind of vituperative verses. But no; Joni's rewrite doesn't change the meaning of the song at all; it just makes those verses sound even more vengeful, in a plain-spoken sort of way. When Mitchell gets to the new lines "My heart's not broken and my path is clear / You were just a little bumpy detour, dear" (with a pregnant pause before the "...dear" completes the rhyme), the camera cuts to David Furnish LOL-ing, and I was right there with him.

But of course it is inspirational, because Mitchell is really up and bopping, looking like she's feeling like a little kid as much as she's ever likely to. At the end of the tune, she takes that omnipresent cane of hers and waves it in the air, as a show of strength (or maybe just to warn whoever did her wrong to vacate the premises). It's so much fun, and it sounds great because Blake Mills - a frequent presence in the public Joni Jams that have gone down - provides most of the accompaniment with an electric guitar part that turns the tune into a jaunty blues. Come the end of 2024, this will probably still stand as one of my favorite covers of the year.

Unless it is supplanted by Metallica's take on "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," in which no quarter is taken and at least a little blood is drawn. For better or worse, the opening all-instrumental section isn't immediately recognizable in Metallica's transformation, but it certainly is by the time it gets to the main course, at which point you may be thinking: Does it go against the laws of nature for Metallica to be playing in a major key? Anyway, it works, to have Elton's most hard-rocking song ever go a little harder. The tech team is judicious with the reaction shots, but surely there is a lot of rattling of jewelry going on in the balcony of Washington's DAR Revolution Hall, where some of the visiting politicos sit, and it'd be nice to think some of them were inspired to deface the bathrooms afterward.

Everything else in these two hours was a little more likely to show up on your bingo card for a John/Taupin tribute. After Joni got the Gershwin Prize last year, the Library of Congress quickly moved on to Carlile's other well-established hero-BFF, and so it's little surprise, and not the slightest bit unwelcome, to see her show up repeatedly here. Leaving her old concert cover of "Rocket Man" behind (actually, no one does that here), Carlile's first selection of the night is "Madman Across the Water," which is cool enough, all the way down to an extended coda in which the singer doesn't have anything to do but happily stroll back and forth between Sista Strings on one side of the stage and guitarist Davey Johnstone on the other, as they do their respective things. (Kudos for the frequent use of the two-woman Sista Strings section in general, a nice, minimalist callback to the larger mastery of string arranger Paul Buckmaster's classic work.)

But the more exquisite of Carlile's two song choices is "Skyline Pigeon," and not just because it's under-covered and great. Context counts for almost everything with this one, as her rendition caps a segment devoted to the long history of John's AIDS Foundation, and specifically to the HIV-stricken boy that won Elton's and the world's heart in the '80s, Ryan White. White's sister reads an open letter that John wrote to his late friend 20 years after his 1990 passing, talking about how the death of an "innocent" helped change hearts and minds, even though, in Elton's words, "You reminded America that all victims of AIDS are innocent." It's a valuable history lesson squeezed into a tight space, even for those of us who need reminders, and the dollar figure cited for what the AIDS Foundation has raised - $600 million - is its own testament to John's legacy, apart from the music. John is weeping through this segment, and it will be Cry Along With Elton night for parts of the audience, too.

Speaking of his AIDS Foundation, John hosted his annual Oscar-viewing benefit in Beverly Hills again this year, and the live entertainer that night was Jacob Lusk, lead singer of the British group Gabriels... which surely had many people reading the invitation at the time asking: Who? Thankfully for those of us who didn't make it to that fundraiser, the "who" is answered in a very public way on this special with Lusk's reading of "Bennie and the Jets" - and it's magnificent.

Not that you'd ever want to bet against Elton's tastemaker instincts, but each protege has to prove himself, and Lusk really does it here by doing something original with "Bennie." That mid-'70s oldie is a great but virtually un-coverable song, which no one could possibly make sound weirder than the original, and which only suffers from any attempt to straighten it out. But Lusk has the voice of an angel - a very loud angel - and the quasi-gospel treatment finally answers the long-simmering question of whether "Bennie" should just be left alone as a cover choice or not. Actually, his contribution here is just as must-see as Mitchell's and Metallica's.

The other contributions all fall somewhere the serviceable-to-spectacular spectrum. Charlie Puth is probably one of the few pop stars around qualified to recreate Elton's piano part on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," even if you might wish a song that emotionally intense had been given to someone with a more anguished-sounding voice. Lennox, who does not lack for vocal edge, shows why the world is still hungering for every crumb she occasionally throws out in the tributes she infrequently appears at these days with her wall-flattening "Border Song."

Billy Porter, the show's host, traverses the aisles with exactly the song you know he's going to do, "The Bitch Is Back." (It comes with a reminder that "in 2024 I don't want you to be offended by the word 'bitch.' The queer community uses it as a love letter." Were we really worried about this? Well, it is PBS, so OK.) His fringe-y dress and leggy look is likely an homage to Tina Turner, who used to duet with John on the rocker before they had a falling out. Maren Morris, who has a nice history of covering Elton, turns on the AC with "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." Garth Brooks, a Gershwin honoree of a few years back himself, gets double-duty with "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" and "Daniel," both reminders that, among all the other things we forget to remember about Garth, he can capably sing just about anything from the great Anglo-American songbook that crosses his mind.

Video tributes roll in between songs from the likes of Carole King, who has special knowledge of what transpires when the music writer and lyricist are not the same person, and Paul McCartney, who says he has always been a little jealous of John being handed a sheet of paper with all the words on it and then spinning gold out of that. (He quickly hastens to add that he doesn't mean Elton has any less tough a task.) That does get to the eternal mystery of the John/Taupin collaboration, and in talking about it, John always sounds as mystified as anyone else. His ability to take sometimes unwieldy words of Taupin's and instantaneously turn them into classics still feels a little spooky, as he describes it, as if it were a kind of automatic writing, melodically. As long as he is maintaining even he can't logically explain it, it's not ours to figure out.

But it is ours to celebrate, and it's a delight to see these two being given their due as a team, whose respect and appreciation for each other has grown over 55 years, by the accounts given. This show is also implicitly a tribute to the Elton John Band, who perform behind a majority of the singers before backing a salmon-coated Elton himself for the final three songs, "Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters," "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and "Your Song." If we feared we'd seen the last of them as a particular ensemble at Dodger Stadium in November 2022, Johnstone's appearance on this series as musical director as well as guitarist is a nice assurance that revivals of the old gang can and will occur.

Producer Ken Ehrlich, of decades of Grammy fame, has been characteristically canny with the choices of tribute-payers here. But with two honorees this year instead of one, he also knows that the best tributes that can be paid are the ones that the composer and lyricist are able to pay each other. That comes through in their mutual testimonials about each other, but it really comes through with the closing rendition of "Your Song," in which we get a sight we've probably never seen before, between these two typically long-distance collaborators: Taupin, leaning on John's red piano, taking it all in as stoic, appreciative glances are exchanged. It's unexpectedly touching to see these two on stage, alone together, for the length of a piece of music. Gracious is definitely not the hardest word.

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Added to Library on April 9, 2024. (666)


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