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It’s just got to be tough when your husband is Elton John.
His closet has just GOT to be bigger than yours, he’s just GOT to have an ego much larger than yours and he just HAS to be impossible to deal with. When David Furnish turned the camera on his then partner, Elton, for the documentary TANTRUMS AND TIARAS you just had to think that all this would be captured much to the chagrin on Elton when he saw the mirror looking back on him. The funny thing is, though, there is all of that but Elton seemed much more sanguine about the process which chronicled a piece of his life that debuted to the world almost a decade and a half.
The movie, which starts out with a genuine tantrum about the process of getting Elton to make a music video (he hates them) and follows his opinions on flower arrangements (he doesn’t much care for them either) transforms into a love letter from one human being to another. Furnish is even-handed in his depiction of Elton as a tireless marketer of himself and his music but also as a man who is partially trapped by the small things in his past that has made him who he is. The film is slightly shocking when you see how much actual clothing he travels with while on holiday, how much space he needs to house his CD collection but we get an intimate look, and by intimate I mean an honest and truthful dissertation on how Elton sees himself, on the spectacle that is Elton John.
The movie was recently released on DVD and is available everywhere. While, like I mentioned, the film is nearly a decade and a half old the small steps that Elton was then taking to make himself a better individual is heartwarming when you see how fast he could have been lost to the booze and drug fueled lifestyle he was on so many years ago.
Want an indication of how much has changed? Long before it became fashionable to wear your red AIDS pins Elton founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation which, up until that point, had raised a few million dollars. To date, the work Elton has put into it has raised over $150 million to the cause of obliterating the disease. David Furnish had a few moments to spend with me a few weeks ago and we chatted about life now after the documentary.
CS: David, nice to talk with you.
FURNISH: And to talk to you as well.
CS: I have seen the film.I’ve never seen the film until this weekend.
FURNISH: Oh really?
CS: And I didn’t know about it when it came out 13 years ago and found it a fascinating portrait of Elton and from the title I think I was expecting more tantrums than I got.I think it was a rather well rounded documentary and the only thing that was rattling around in my head the whole time is how do you look at it now, 13 years removed from it?
FURNISH: It had a much more significant effect on our life and our relationship I think that either of us appreciated at the time.I look at it today and we’ve been together 15 years now and when I made the documentary it was very early on into our relationship and I was almost – kind of want to call it video therapy – I was using the camera – I was very much an outsider in Elton’s world and the world of celebrity and music touring and the lifestyle that goes with it and used the camera almost as a weapon in a way and gave me the chance to interrogate and really get to the bottom of things that seemed odd to me and the way Elton looked at his life.
I’ll give you an example.I found it frustrating that we go away on a holiday and my idea of going away on a holiday in the south of France would be going for a ride in a boat, going to visit places, lying in the sun kind of stuff and Elton at that stage would tend to spend most of his time in his hotel suite not going anywhere and there’s that funny scene on the terrace where I sort of interrogate him and ask him would you do this, would you do that, and he says, no, no, no.He was different then.I was different then.I think the documentary helped us, to answer your question correctly, to see a lot of ourselves and each other from a relationship standpoint, but when I look at 13 years later I don’t think I could make a film like that about someone like Elton again because I think I’m too accustomed to that world now.I don’t think I’d bring that same level of objectivity that I brought 13 years ago.Does that make sense?
CS: Yes it does.That was one of the more amusing parts, apart from his take on flower arrangements,
CS: I thought it very curious that he wouldn’t like to sit out by the pool or go out on a walk with you or wouldn’t want to do any of those things on holiday.Where does that come from?
FURNISH: It really comes from him being a prisoner of his celebrity more than anything else.It’s a dynamic that still exists in our relationship.There are all sorts of things we do do and we get better at.You find those places you can go and places he can slip in really easily and places like the south of France and having security with you is a must and holidays are a time of rest, relaxation, and recharging and we do lots and lots of different things we didn’t do back then but now I understand that world better and understand the vulnerabilities in public situations from time to time and how to manage it and we do manage it and I take a much more active role in all that sort of planning now.We do lots of stuff and it’s great.
CS: I know there was some to do a few years ago about his spending – his excess spending and again it was that south of France moment when we saw the amount of wardrobe he brings with him. Has that curtailed at all in the wake of recent years?
FURNISH: It all depends.We need to define excess spending.A lot of that stuff came out of a trial where people were trying to paint Elton as being a financially irresponsible person.Elton is not a financially irresponsible person at all.Actually when the figures came out and they said you spent a whole lot of money in a short period of time, what Elton did was spend it on property and on collecting art work. All art work which creates a beautiful environment in your home which inspires him and myself artistically and also pieces of art that have hugely increased in value and actually proved to be an investment, so in the end he’s actually quite prudent with his money.I wouldn’t call it irresponsible or excessive.At the end of the day he earns what he earns and works very, very hard for what he does and gives more back to charity.
The Sunday Times publishes their annual rich list and Elton is always the top ten most charitable people in Britain.He gives the highest percentage of his net worth to charitable time and charitable activities.Much more than any of his contemporaries and he wouldn’t view it as excessive, and I wouldn’t either, it’s just Elton’s zest for life and the way he loves life and appreciates life and one thing when you are a celebrity of the magnitude of Elton and you are so well known and so well recognized, going out in the world can be a challenging thing and so your homes become a very important environment.They become your sanctuaries.They become the places where you spend time and bring your life in and bring life inside and a lot of that spending that was brought up at that trial had to do with the acquisition of our house in the south of France which is probably gone up about 30 times in value since we bought it.I couldn’t even begin to estimate how much that has gone up.That house is such an important sanctuary to him and myself – it has brought us so much joy and so much pleasure I don’t consider that irresponsible spending.I consider it smart spending because a) it’s created a beautiful sanctuary, a place of peace and love, and secondly it’s turned out to be a bloody good investment.I would certainly shy away from the phrase irresponsible because I think it was actually quite responsible but because of that court case it was positioned in a different light.
CS: Exactly.And you touched upon something there that I definitely want to talk about and that’s Elton’s charitable givings. At one point in the documentary we see, I think it was a figure of about $9 million that he already gained to the Elton John’s Aids Foundation and this was well before our little red lapel pins that everyone seemed to wear in the late 90’s early 2000’s – How has that foundation evolved since you actually did the documentary?
FURNISH: The foundation has been a huge success.We are well over about $160 million now based worldwide.We work in 35 different countries, getting very successful projects and the foundation’s very much seen as being kind of a leader in terms of approaches that are taken in the fight against aids.There are programs that we pilot and pioneer in countries like the Ukraine, India, South Africa, where we come up with a particular approach or find something that seems unique and innovative and when we find success with it, a lot of bigger funds like the Gates Fund or the Clinton Foundation, they come in and not only match what we put in but actually multiply it and we are able to take those programs and roll them out to more and more people.It has become an increasingly big focus in our life and certainly when I was learning all about it, I’ve had friends that have contracted the disease and I lost a few friends to aids that have touched me personally, but now I sit on both boards and we are both very heavily and actively involved.The foundation is very well run – we just got the Charity Navigator award in America, the Four Star award for three consecutive years, which I think only about 8% of charities get that award three consecutive years in a row, our overheads run at about 5% which is incredibly low and we are very proud of the foundation and what it achieves but we continue to invest a lot of time and energy to it because the problem is so big and the need is so vital.
CS: Right.There is another touching moment in the documentary of Elton’s reflection on the way he felt sort of remorse for his ex-wife – that whole situation – and looking back at 1995 that was still pretty fresh of a wound at least, and tying into all that as well, when you played bat for him the therapist talking about Elton’s buying people’s friendships and his response to it, how has he evolved in the last 13 years as a result of seeing this?
FURNISH: One of the many things I love about him is he has this incredible capacity for change and for growth.I think at the time the documentary was made there as some unhealthy relationships in his life and I think he wasn’t in control of his life and feeling good about himself as he is today.He has never been in better form than he is now.His confidence has improved.His self esteem has improved.His sense of independence has improved.He’s more control of his career and his destiny.He’s diversified himself in so many ways.
We just had Billy Elliott open in New York a couple weeks ago, at that time the Lion King was just a successful film and now 13 years later, he’s written 4 musicals and that’s opened a whole area for him that he loves and is very passionate about.The Aides Foundation, as I mentioned to you, he’s much more active and personal as the hands on approach that we take to it and events that we host and where we host them.We are incredibly happy ourselves.15 years is a wonderful time to be in a happy relationship and we are still very much in love and very happy and to have the laws change in Britain to allow same sex partnerships which afford all the benefits that marriage does in Britain is a real advance and is something that we were very happy to embrace and be a part of.The past 13 years since that’s been done has been a period of incredible change and growth for both of us and I think we will always have these moments when we just pinch ourselves and just say aren’t we so lucky to live the life that we live and to be blessed in the way that we are.We are very grateful for that but at the same time we don’t want to take it for granted.Just want to keep going forward and be good people and do everything we can to help the world be a slightly better place.
CS: The other thing that I noticed in Elton’s creative process was that he was able to just knock these things out.These hit songs, he’d spend an hour with it.
FURNISH: And that was a line in the documentary.I used to talk about him about his creative process because that used to fascinate me – the way that he writes in such an organic and it’s just unbelievable – he just channels something from somewhere and when I filmed him writing that song for Lulu in the studio, no one had ever filmed him writing a song before.So that’s one of the things in the documentary I admire very much.
CS: And certainly if I have one more question for you, looking back on what you created 13 years ago finally now on DVD, how do the two of you look at what you made?Was it a snapshot of where you were or are there parts of it now that you look at as representative of who you still are now today?
FURNISH: We both watched it together.We did an audio commentary for it and we both watched it and said, wow, it still continues to hold up so well.I think it stands up incredibly well 13 years later.It is very much a snapshot in time and it’s really nice to have it captured because you appreciate it even more how much life can move on and how things can continue to grow in your life and be positive so given it’s a marker in time it’s nice to see what progress has been made and where growth has taken place.I think in many respects it was a precursor to a lot of reality television we are seeing today because I don’t think a celebrity of Elton’s magnitude, not many famous people or infamous people have allowed that unlimited access to their lives, and now we live in this world where there seems to be so much television based on following people around with camera crews and getting inside their lives with a lot of detail, and really getting inside their lives.
I think what Madonna did with Truth or Dare is a terrific documentary and is very entertaining and I remember loving it when it came out but I don’t think it nearly cuts below the surface in the same way that Tantrums does on the same level of intimacy and reality.I think that was done to paint a particular portrait and Tantrums was really was a year and a half of Elton’s and my life together.Sharon Osborne will openly admit that when she saw Tantrums she said that was one of the inspirations that she had when they did the Osborn’s on MTV.I thought well our life is crazier and more entertaining and look where that world has grown since then.
It’s an astounding change in our cultural landscape.
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