Everyone knows Bowie, Charles, Crow, Jagger, Midler, Springsteen, Sting, Vandross, and Wonder; but how many have heard of the back-up singers for these artists, women like Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Janice Pendarvis, Tata Vega, and Claudia Lennear? Morgan Neville (director/producer) and Gil Friesen (producer with the original idea for the film) have created one of the best documentaries I have seen about a subject few know anything about. The singers—mostly black women—have remained largely in the shadows, although by the stars’ admission, they have been intrinsic to the lead singer’s success.
Many began in gospel choirs and had a passion for music. Many are the daughters of preachers. They entered the professional music world in various ways, learning how to meld their own voices with that of the group and not stand out. Across time, either because of their own ambitions or because back-up singing began to fade, some had aspirations to go out on their own. We hear those stories and are reminded of what a long, difficult pathway that is, and how it requires a business sense as well as pure luck. Judith Hill was a back-up singer and in rehearsals with Michael Jackson when he suddenly died. This was devastating, of course; however, her singing at his memorial service brought her to the public’s attention, and after appearing on the TV show “The Voice”, she seems well on her way to becoming a star in her own right.
A part of the film that is most rewarding is to hear artists like Springsteen, Sting, Wonder, and Jagger talk about the women and what they have brought to their concerts. A couple of them say, “I just receded to the background and let her do her thing.” We find out about the times they have spent together, simply enjoying one another and having fun. The back-ups seem to have a particular knack for pleasing others similar to what they have done with their voices: So, ironically, part of the reason for their not achieving lead status is that most of their lives have been geared toward acquiescing and blending—not enough “ego”, as some have said.
Twenty Feet from Stardom stirs up all kinds of emotions—like inspiration, joy, heartbreak, laughter, sadness—while informing us about the tremendous work and talent required for success in the music industry. It is a very well made film, with plenty of opportunity to learn about each singer, the group as a whole, and the industry in general. Most importantly, the segments of music are long enough for us to appreciate their songs. Grade: A
GINGER AND ROSA
This is a very disturbing story about the cataclysmic events a teenage girl will undergo in the space of a short time. It is the 60’s when the U.S. and the Soviet Union are having a standoff about nuclear war. Unfortunately, Ginger (Elle Fanning) is about to have another part of her existence completely torn away. One potential threat is a metaphor for the other.
Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) grow up together, and in their teens become very close, sharing everything. Ginger’s mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks) does not think Rosa—who is more “worldly”—is an especially good influence, but without the support of her husband Roland (Alessandro Nivola), lets it go. Roland does not really support her in this, or in much of anything. He is a professor, and talks and writes about the freedom of the individual and the responsibility to live by one’s own code of conduct. So he encourages Ginger and Rosa to LIVE, and to live by whatever set of morals they have developed.
Ginger is a serious young woman with aspirations of being a poet. She keeps up on current affairs in the world, reads, and thinks. Rosa is not inclined in that direction, but believes that everything is in God’s hands, so it is best not to try to alter life events. She feels her responsibility is in being there for the one she has chosen. These two philosophies of life will come to a head-on collision eventually that will separate the two friends.
Sally Potter, the writer/director seems to be making a point about different philosophies of life, and how they can profoundly affect the individual. Similarly, global events can have an impact. In this case, not only do these two forces come together, they coincide with major events in Ginger’s personal life, and her pain in going through it is palpable. We get the impression she will be OK. In this respect, the film is brilliant. What is lacking is a picture of the outcome in terms of Ginger. What kind of person does she turn out to be? I would like to think that these were character-building experiences, because she is so thoughtful, and that she becomes more grounded in herself and her place in the world; whereas presumably Rosa is already in for trouble because of the absence of these experiences and qualities. Grade: B
Elena is an art film expressing the director’s (Petra Costa) experience of losing her older sister, Elena, a significant and exciting caretaker from the time Petra was born until she was four. Elena danced with her, played imaginative games, and shared with Petra her aspirations for becoming an actress.
After Elena left Brazil for New York City to fulfill her dreams of being an actress, she sent back pictures, videos, and personal accounts to the family. Elena died when Petra was seven years old, and when Petra was 18, she found Elena’s diary. After reading it, she vowed to make a documentary about her and their relationship and what the loss meant to Petra. When it came time to gather the information for it, not only did she have Elena’s diary and family pictures and videos, she was able to locate a filmmaker in New York who had footage of Elena performing.
These materials form the basis of the visuals in the documentary, with Petra narrating. The cinematography (Janice D’Avila, Will Etchebehere, and Miguel Vassy) contributes to the story about as much as the words, with images of water, streetlights and shadows at night, close-ups of eyes and faces, and moving collages. The film is like a painting, with music by Ariel Henrique.
In the Q&A after the screening, Director Petra Costa spoke movingly about what her sister’s death meant to her, and how she has worked through her grief. She often spoke to Elena after a wise person said to her that she could always talk to Elena, who would be invisible but would always hear her. A turning point in Petra’s healing came when she was riding a golf cart on some friends’ property and it dawned on her while “going around in the cart, looking up at the trees, I realize you died forever.”
An artistic collage of Elena’s life and Petra’s grief in words, pictures, dance, and music. Grade: B+
The Network is a documentary charting the establishment and development of the largest and most popular television network in Afghanistan, Tolo-TV. It was initially starts as a radio station in 2004 by the Mohseni family whose interest was in the reconstruction of the country following the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. They have continued to run it, and what started with less than a 100 employees has grown to 800. They knew nothing about broadcasting when they started it, and to help it grow into television, they hired many expatriates who were knowledgeable about the television and broadcasting business. The writer/director of this film, Eva Orner (Taxi to the Dark Side), an Australian, reports she is trying to show how the media can effect social change.
The process of hiring Afghan employees has involved teaching and modeling for them a different work ethic than they were used to, along with whatever skills they would need for their positions. Afghans had to develop a sense of responsibility to show up to work every day and to develop timelines with goals of accomplishment. Now, they are very proud of the crew they have, and the programs they are able to offer including news, entertainment, and education. They see themselves as helping to change the culture in a positive way. For instance, they are continually reinforcing the role of women in their endeavors outside the home. Another part of their task has been to inform people about their own country, so they have a program called “On the Road” which is something like a travelogue, showing people historical landmarks and other important aspects of their country. They even sent part of the crew on a trip to the U.S. to show the Afghans what America looks like, and to show Afghans who are living in the U.S. This trip was very successful, except that two cameramen “escaped” while here and did not return to their country.
One reason is perhaps that it is so dangerous there. They never know when a bomb will go off; at one point the television station was caught in the crossfire between the U.S. Embassy and terrorists. One of their aims also is to inform citizens about the security forces and to reinforce their faith in the police, so they frequently report stories about their successes when possible.
A major point of the film is the uncertainty of the future in Afghanistan; many fear that a civil war will break out when the Americans and other expatriates leave. The hope is that young people have a different perspective from their elders and have become a strong enough force to have an impact on Afghanistan’s future. Grade: B
Don Jon is a finely written and produced film by Joseph Gordon Levitt that explores porn addiction in a macho man who has trouble getting outside himself to see another person's point of view. Don Jon (Levitt) objectifies everything in his life--women, his body, his car, even his church. He is highly disciplined in his work-outs, his schedule, and driving, and when anything/anybody gets in the way, he loses his temper. He has become so narcissistic, he gets more out of porn sex than he does with a real woman. And he sees no problem with this. He is outwardly attractive--gorgeous body!--and is successful in his seductions. Life is good.
But Don Jon is hit between the eyes--so to speak--when a blond bombshell, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson,) glides into the nightclub and holds her own with him. He's not used to snags in his seductions, which, of course, makes her even more attractive to him. He is intrigued (hooked) and continues to pursue her even as she delays and delays going to bed with him. When she finally does give in, then catches him at his computer right afterwards, she only stays because he promises never to do it again (oh, sure!). There are many funny lines in the film, and one is Barbara saying, "Movies and porn are different; they give awards to movies."
Their relationship blossoms; they meet each other's families who are pleased with their choices. We see that Don Jon is a chip off the old block when his dad (Tony Danza) is mesmerized by Barbara. As cracks begin to appear in the relationship, Don Jon is not bothered, only a little troubled. One issue surrounds cleaning. He is a neat freak and loves to clean his apartment, but Barbara, who is from a wealthy family, says, "Don't talk about vacuuming in front of me." She wants to send her maid over to his apartment; he shouldn't be doing anything so low class.
Enter Esther (Julianne Moore), a classmate in a course Don Jon is taking. He is completely unaware of her--even when he passes her crying in the doorway of the building--but she seems to want to be friends and corners him one day. Her attitudes toward porn and many other things are very different from any he has heard, and despite himself, he is curious about this older woman. This friendship will have a significant impact on him in a positive way because she has none of the oppositionality he is accustomed to in himself and others in his circle. She has a story that pulls from him feelings he has never before experienced, and he begins to see Barbara in a different light. The viewer should find resolution of the story in the film well done and satisfying.
Levitt is to be congratulated on accomplishing so much in his first written/directed/produced film. It depicts the manifestations of addiction intelligently from social and emotional standpoints and illustrates how personal relationships can be essential in overcoming its power over a person. Levitt is outstanding in his performance, and he and Scarlett Johansson make a fine duo with good chemistry. She also performs one of her finest and sexiest roles. Julianne Moore's character is a perfect contrast, with her natural warmth and understanding. All of these actors are at the top of their game. The inclusion of Don Jon's sister as glued to her cell phone and making only a couple of statements that turn out to be profound is a clever addition and well portrayed by Brie Larson. The Tony Danza character is just who one would expect would be Don Jon's father. He is well cast for this role.
Not only is this movie highly entertaining, it has a great deal of substance in its portrayal of addiction. Grade: A