Almost more than you want to know Preview: 'Tantrums & Tiaras' takes a close look at Elton John. But because the documentary was made by his lover, sometimes it's too close.

September 03, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It sounds like a depressing new dimension in self-promotion even by the standards of star-controlled, pop-music, video journalism: a documentary about a superstar filmed and directed by the star's current lover.

But "Tantrums and Tiaras," a look at the life of Elton John by David Furnish, is anything but. In fact, it's one of the most pleasantly surprising documentaries of the year. If nothing else, it demolishes those hoary bromides about the importance of objectivity to nonfiction film-making.

Furnish might love John, and I'm sure he protects him by keeping all sorts of things out of this film. But the things he leaves in, boy-oh-boy.

Watching "Tantrums" is like being at dinner with a couple after the first bottle of wine is emptied and private, intimate observations and resentments suddenly become public table talk. Furnish literally takes us inside John's closet for a face-to-face look at one of the most obsessive-compulsive personalities this side of Imelda Marcos.

You almost feel sorry for John when, near the film's end, Furnish sits down for a chat with John's therapist, who makes it official, saying there are five ways an obsessive like John can get into trouble: drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, possessions.

"And, he's had it on all five!" the therapist says, sounding amazed.

And then, Furnish shows the interview with the therapist to John, asking him what he's feeling as he views it.

"I feel like I'm watching a couple of vultures picking over my life, that's what I f feel," John says angrily.

The "F" word is used a lot by John in "Tantrums," but this is, after all, premium cable. You paid extra to bring it into your home. It's not like Cinemax is mugging any viewers with such language.

The film opens on a flurry of "F" words as John wheels into a tantrum over the fact that he is about to walk onto a soundstage to film a music video, but someone forgot to bring his costume. This might seem temperamental, but when you consider how many tens of thousands of dollars are being spent while everybody waits for the costume to be delivered, his anger is not that unreasonable.

The film's other big tantrum is less understandable at first. It occurs while John is trying to take a short vacation in the south of France after a world tour that included 108 shows. While playing tennis, he seems to freak out suddenly and wants to go home.

It is not until three days later, back in England, that Furnish is able to get John to talk about the incident. In this case, John's anger almost makes sense -- but only because the viewer is now so far inside the singer's head.

As for the tiaras, during a tour of John's closets at the hotel in France, Furnish points the camera at two tiaras and asks John what they are for. John says matter-of-factly that you never know when you will be invited to a ball.

One of the best things about "Tantrums" is how non-sensational it is about cross-dressing. The film shows John in drag, but it is no big deal. The tiaras are not the point of the trip into John's closet.

What is shocking about the closet are the rows and rows of clothes and shoes he has along on vacation. There are three bureau drawers crammed with sunglasses alone. Viewers can XTC decide for themselves if John's explanation makes the take-along-on-holiday possessions seem less excessive.

In terms of balance, there are also lots of genuinely nice moments in this film: John with his grandmother shortly before her death, John backstage at an AIDS benefit, John onstage at various moments of seeming transcendence.

In the end, I came away thinking that, for all the battles with alcohol and drugs that he's won, John is still a deeply troubled guy. Because of that, I found myself liking him more than I ever imagined I would.

I also came away with the conviction that lovers make for very dangerous biographers. They know way, way too much about what's hidden in the closet.

'Tantrums & Tiaras'

What: Elton John documentary

When: 8 to 9: 30 tonight

Where: on Cinemax

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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