August 16 — August 22
Twenty Feet From Stardom
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:00|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Producer-director Morgan Neville has crafted several documentaries focusing on some of the most important figures in American music: Sam Phillips, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Leiber and Stoller, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Iggy Pop—it’s a long, eclectic list that speaks of Neville’s deep respect and admiration for popular music, and his willingness to recognize all contributors to this art, including record producers, songwriters, and performers in a variety of genres. Twenty Feet from Stardom is a rare feature-length, theatrically-released documentary from Neville and interestingly, he uses the larger canvas to tell the stories not of the famous and celebrated, but the unknown and forgotten—the backup singers who gave our cherished musical memories far more texture, emotional depth, style, wit, and sheer fun than most of us even realize. As the film’s title suggests, there’s also some psychological interest in the stories of these faceless performers: their physical proximity to the “stars” who get all the cheers and adulation from the audience frequently masks how close the backup singers are to the main attraction in terms of talent—in fact, a lot of backup singers are better singers than the more famous, which must make them (and us) wonder what it is that separates the famous from the not-famous. Of course, some stars did do an apprenticeship as backup singers themselves, eventually making that “twenty foot” leap into the spotlight. But many more remain anonymous. Some gain a strong sense of investment in their stars, making them feel obligated to help others look and sound great; some having gotten as close to fame as they ever want to get, see the bad as well as the good from observing the stars they’ve supported; and others have had to adjust their childhood dreams to accommodate the diminished reality of where they are in the music industry. These are all fascinating stories, and their emotions are really not just exclusive to entertainment: who among us hasn’t occasionally felt unrecognized at work? (If we’re lucky, maybe we get some satisfaction in a job well done, or we feel content just knowing how important we are even without the public acknowledgment). If Twenty Feet from Stardom were only a tapestry of stories about the “music biz” from insiders with a unique and untapped perspective, it would be highly entertaining, informative, and a much-needed corrective to the notion that popular music isn’t a collaborative art and that a small number of “greats” hold a monopoly on talent, dedication, and genuine artistry. But Neville’s fascinating documentary is even more: it becomes an oral history of the development of rock and roll, the American civil rights movement, and women’s liberation (backup singing has been a career predominantly for female performers). The stories are engaging and dramatize the inherent tension of the backup singer’s role: the conflicting desires for fame versus anonymity, wanting to be in the spotlight while enjoying the safety of staying behind the star. Backup singing even becomes a rather graceful metaphor for the problem of choosing to support that to which we’re politically or morally opposed; this is most explicit when African-American singer Merry Clayton talks about why she decided to sing backup on “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s controversial rebuke to Neil Young’s anti-racist “Southern Man.” Clayton isn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of not doing a fantastic job singing backup on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Confederate flag-draped ode to the South—that’s how she chose to express her political views. And there are other remarkable stories from people whom we quickly realize ought to have been front and center all along—not just because their musical talent makes more famous performers seem feeble, but because they’re so articulate, impassioned, and socially aware. “Still waters run deep” as the saying goes, and maybe a lifetime of watching history unfold from just outside the periphery of the limelight has made so many backup singers such excellent observers and reporters of social, political, and cultural change. This is perhaps the ultimate success of the film: viewers might walk in expecting to feel sorry for these often disrespected talents (Mick Jagger bluntly stated that he’d never want to make a living singing backup); but we quickly become impressed by these performers—they don’t need pity, and we’re the ones who benefit when they get the chance to open up and talk about their experiences. The film also gets across just how difficult it is to make the transition from backup singer to star, and how rare it is when it actually happens. But ultimately, Twenty Feet from Stardom is a celebration of the artistic process: backup singers do far more than sing the “oohs” and “ahs” that sweeten the instrumentation and cover the musical dead spots; these performers often provide the soul of our most enduring, beloved music. Neville’s film shows us just where that soul comes from.
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Seniors/Students with valid ID: $7
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