20 Feet From Stardom

I Thought Oscar Nominee ’20 Feet From Stardom’ Was Down With Sisterhood, Until…

53966_38e5f603f4085f24d4a0b82934869943_194c0351f9aae66208af9dd312dc3458One of the finest documentaries released last year, Morgan Neville’s Oscar-nominated 20 Feet From Stardom, quickly establishes itself as a celebration of song, passion, and sisterhood.

It’s a film that, like most great documentaries, takes us beyond the veneer of something we so often take for granted. Background artists (whether in film or music), by all means (given their proper name), are relegated to second-tier status during any major performance. Extras create a believable scene around the star, and backing vocalists bolster the solo performance.

20 Feet From Stardom takes us on an almost fantastical journey through the lives of several vocalists who’ve made a living making as the building blocks of performance. Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, and Judith Hill have shared the stage with the likes of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and Sting. Their names aren’t synonymous with solo success but, through 20 Feet From Stardom‘s lens, their stories are beautiful, their presence justified to an audience who, in any other context, would’ve let them blend into the shadows of the stage.

While the film is a marvelous exercise in allowing us to glimpse into another facet of the minority voice, it’s also a celebration of the unity–an almost subcultural family–that these singers formed. They share experience, talent, and an adoration of the craft they’ve perfected over the years. We’re watching artists who’ve overcome the same racial, social, and industry biases as those who receive top billing on the marquee.

Neville makes it clear–like a great documentary filmmaker should–through the juxtaposition of images and patient observation, that these women are, in many cases, more talented vocalists than the singers they stand behind. We don’t need to be told much of anything, as a great documentarian establishes his status quo without words, rather through the overall establishment of a quiet narrative ideology within his work.

Neville, for the most part, allows his subjects’ stories to speak for them. No words exist that could possibly match the tragedy of an seeing artists such as Claudia Lennear and Lisa Fischer teaching Spanish and standing in line at the DMV. Our judgments aside, however, the artistry is what’s important to them, and there’s a sisterhood, a companionship, and a yearning for comfort and validation that unites these women in their shared struggle for fulfillment across different avenues–musically or otherwise.

Neville’s camera is present, yet never prodding. We feel as if these stories are unfolding with us along for the ride, like a child curled up at the lap of a grandparent, drinking in the history, the experience, and years’ worth of pride layed out before us.

There’s a scene, however, which nearly derails the entirety of Neville’s work, that removes the camera’s appreciation for its subjects and replaces it with a sharp, judgmental tone that doesn’t jive with the rest of the work.

A large portion of the film is spent so lovingly engaged–like a hapless soul love-drunk in the presence of a voluptuous other–in his subjects’ work, that there’s little judgment that seeps through the cracks, until Neville takes a very noticeable jab at a contemporary artist.

Toward the end of the film, we’re introduced to Hill, a backup singer who was prepping for Michael Jackson’s This Is It tour shortly before he passed. After Jackson’s death, Hill performed at his funeral and found momentary attention from the media. Her image was defined by association with a superstar. She was a backup singer famous for being a backup singer, though she values her individuality as an artist. Her desire to go solo is made clear, and she consistently notes that she rejected every touring or stage background singing gig she was offered so as not to become pigeonholed by the industry.

Shortly thereafter, we’re shown a clip of Jay Leno introducing Kylie Minogue as a performer on his show, with Hill singing backup. Hill claims countless people dismissed her for lowering herself to such a position, and that she even tried to drastically alter her appearance (with a wig and heavy makeup) in hopes of not being recognized.

It was undoubtedly a move that would pay Hill’s bills, and Minogue clearly shares a different career and artistic trajectory than Hill, though Neville’s inclusion of it begs the audience to compare both women’s talents, and ultimate come to the conclusion that Hill is superior to another.

A film which seems to value and explore the alternative to the norm, the diss is surprisingly off-key, demeaning whatever path Minogue took to achieve her success.

UntitledThe jab not only upsets the tone of companionship and celebration of artistry the film seeks to establish, but is also unfair to Hill, as it forces the audience to consider the legitimacy of what she’s saying about desiring to be a true artist instead of a check-hungry star. This forces us to then carry judgments over to other aspects of Hill’s career. She appeared on NBC’s “The Voice” just last year, though Neville wisely does not include any mention of it in 20 Feet From Stardom. Is that not, from the perspective of the filmmaker who chose to diss Kylie Minogue, similarly deplorable for a true “artist”?

It’s here that the technical seams begin to show. When a documentarian’s hand is evident, the world we’re soaking up onscreen starts to unravel. Neville’s opinion on artists and their genre is irrelevant, and the focus is momentarily distracted from the well-made points he established earlier in the film.

It opens the film and its subjects up to unnecessary criticism. It’s a dark cloud of negativity and personal opinion that momentarily takes the film from celebrating artistic value and struggle to elevating itself above an alternate facet of the art form we’ve spent the last 90 minutes celebrating.

Individuality, on the other hand, is something Hill should by all means strive to savor. The film hits upon so many meaningful topics of survival. Bills need to be paid, but singularity in any form is natural to human existence. Whether hearing their voices on radio hits without shared credit with the main artists or watching solo projects circle countless drains, that’s where the beauty of the film shines; the persistence of art and individuality comes at a price, though happiness doesn’t have to go down with the ship.

2013 was a strong year for documentaries. Affect turned to action for many who viewed the staggering amount of quality documentaries released last year. Blackfish stirred a sleeping public to action, while films like Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing inspired intense introspection as they deeply explored their subject matter.

Tomorrow’s Academy Awards will likely tip the balance of a heavily-competitive year for documentary films in the favor of one. 20 Feet From Stardom and The Act of Killing are the likeliest contenders to win the Oscar. Experts predict The Act of Killing, though the broad appeal of 20 Feet From Stardom fits nicely within the narrative of the season. 20 Feet From Stardom puts minority voices put on display, much the way 12 Years a Slave amplifies the racial tensions we still endure in our society to this day.

The accessibility of 20 Feet From Stardom works in its favor. Its editing and technical construction are brilliant but, like a fictional narrative, however, its constructed nature seeps through the cracks and reveals various inconsistencies, and for that it’ll likely be singing backup for The Act of Killing  come Sunday evening.

Mining for Early Oscar Gold

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Is it smooth, yet? The air?

Just curious, because I’ve had a hell of a time adjusting to the dust cloud that’s been accumulating on Blu-Ray copies of Argo.

Last year’s recipient of the Best Picture Oscar faded from prominence even faster than the previous year’s The Artist, a gimmicky Academy-pleaser in itself, thanks to a sympathy-based vote to accredit director Ben Affleck with some semblance of relevance as his career transitions from notable star to almost-there-but-not-quite-yet filmmaker. Whereas Argo‘s meritless win leaves a sour taste in my mouth, I’m more than happy to shake the Oscar etch-a-sketch and begin afresh with 2013’s crop of awards season contenders.

This year we welcome new talents to compete with industry mainstays. We harken back to the eras of social icons of years past and adapt their lives for a contemporary audience. We relish in a year that Meryl Streep’s potential to win a fourth Oscar increases dramatically. We revisit previously-published material with a fresh cinematic perspective; but, most importantly, we face another year of submission to The Weinstein Company which, if all tentative release dates remain unchanged, will see six of their distributed films as likely contenders at the next Oscar ceremony.

Here’s a look at a few other industry figures bound for greatness during the 2013 awards season.

It’s going to be a good year for:

Anyone involved with Fruitvale Station

The freshman feature effort from USC graduate Ryan Coogler is one of the buzziest films coming out of 2013’s festival circuit.

Having claimed both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for a dramatic feature at Sundance as well as sashaying away from Cannes with Best First Film after screening in the Un Certain Regard section, Fruitvale Station is shaping up to be a major contender in at least three major categories.

Coogler’s film, about the real-life events surrounding the murder of Oscar Grant by an Oakland police officer, joins the ranks of other grim Sundance prizewinners like Winter’s Bone, Precious and Frozen River–which each went on to be recognized by the Academy with major nominations (and a few wins) in key categories.

The film hosts the breakout role for star Michael B. Jordan who, after having had minor roles in television (“Friday Night Lights”) and a few pictures (last year’s Chronicle), finally gets the chance to show his dramatic chops off for a wider audience.

Fruitvale Station seems poised to score nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor coupled with building momentum which could potentially push co-star (and Oscar-winner) Octavia Spencer into the Supporting Actress race, which could easily happen as the Weinsteins have acquired the film for distribution.

Besties Naomi Watts & Nicole Kidman…and dead cultural icons

It’s unfair to pit two actresses against each other for the sake of a gendered contest.

In the case of Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, however, the challenge will be how to endure the barrage of questions from reporters to the tune of “how does it feel to be nominated against one of your closest friends?” this awards season.

Both actresses are all but sealed into the Lead Actress category for their respective roles in Diana and Grace of Monaco (Watts in the former, Kidman in the latter).

Naomi Watts’ talents have catapulted her far past the point of simply “deserving” an Oscar; she’s one of the most talented and, on the other side of the coin, underrepresented actresses in the industry. Her work in films like Mulholland Drive, Ellie Parker, and The Assasination of Richard Nixon represent just a handful of performances overlooked by the Academy in relatively quiet seasons. She’s gaining status as an underdog, however, as she squeaked into the Lead Actress race last year for her brilliant turn as Maria Bennett in The Impossible, a race within which she was actually being predicted as a potential spoiler after Entertainment Weekly’s annual Oscar issue saw her name mentioned by a majority of anonymous Oscar voters who’d been interviewed a short time before the Oscars.

The Academy favors Lead female performances attached to roles based on real women in positions of political and/or social power; think winners like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and nominees like Cate Blanchett and her turn as the namesake royal in Elizabeth (and its poorly-received sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age).

Judging from Diana‘s trailer, the film will focus on the softer side of her notorious public identity which, I’m assuming, gives Watts a chance to show off her emotional depth instead of the usual controlled, stoic coldness that generally comes with these types of roles (as a side note, she’s also got a juicy role coming up in this year’s Adore, also starring Robin Wright).

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Kidman, on the other side of the coin, is far from a being a stranger to the Academy Awards. She’s an Oscar winner and a multiple-time nominee. While she had a buzzy-ish film floating around the perimeter of last year’s awards season (she made it into the Globes categories with The Paperboy), the Weinsteins will make sure that she has a spot amongst this year’s nominees for her turn as Grace Kelly.

The Weinsteins have a great track record for getting their actors nominated in major categories (Jacki Weaver’s spot in the Supporting Actress category was surely bought for her through “campaigning,” as she had no other right to be there), so Kidman’s pre-established Oscar identity is coupled nicely here with a Weinstein push.

It’s also interesting that these two roles are seeing the light of day in 2013 what with the incessant talk about social media, quick-fix fame, celebrity (and personal) accessibility, etc.

Both Princess Diana and Grace Kelly are posterchildren for the obsession with fame and its various aspects of decay. Diana of course died a highly-publicized death after the car she was riding in (manned by a drunk driver) crashed after a cat-and-mouse with paparazzi; Grace would die of a stroke/car crash combo after leaving a life of Hollywood luxury behind to marry a royal from Monaco (thereby becoming a princess). After only six years in the film industry (with one Academy Award under her belt), Kelly became one of the most popular stars of classical Hollywood cinema. In an age of post-internet accessibility, the public is growing increasingly bored with the flash-and-gimmick celebrities of the contemporary industry; Diana and Grace represent the mainstay of stardom and the impact of talent, presence, and prominence which takes on new meaning in an age of meaningless objectification, Facebook, selfies, and events that would later go on to inspire films like The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers.

Look for Watts and Kidman to both be nominated in the Lead Actress category.

Documentaries

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Not many people can go from playing dumbed-down roles in horror films like Splice to directing emotionally-charged documentaries quite like Sarah Polley.

She killed zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) and wrote/directed indie dramas like Take This Waltz, and now she’s taking a stab at a scripted-documentary hybrid with Stories We Tell, which chronicles her life as the product of an extramarital affair.

Polley weaves in staged footage recreating her early life with interviews with her family, piecing together her history funneled through a narrative perspective while maintaining the cinematic resonance of an objective documentary. The documentary is garnering the best reviews of Polley’s career, earning a spot on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Top 10 Canadian films list as well as making a few minor splashes at festivals around the world.

Other notable documentaries releasing in 2013 include the polarizing-yet-provocative We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and 20 Feet From Stardom.

The Coen Brothers

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On the heels of their True Grit remake, the Joel & Ethan Coen return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which took the Grand Prix Award at Cannes and continues to work the festival circuit until its release smack dab in the middle of Oscar season this December.

Earning rave reviews from critics, the Coens take a step back from some of their darker subject matter and instead draw on inspiration from the folk music scene in the 1960s. The film stars a slew of talented actors from John Goodman and Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.

The Academy generally loves the Coens, as many of their past films have been nominated for screenwriting. It takes a film like No Country For Old Men, however, for nominations and sentiment to lead to ultimate gold; it is, to date, their only picture to have won the top prize at the Oscars. Inside Llewyn Davis will be nominated in major categories ranging from Best Picture to Best Original Screenplay, not garnering enough momentum to match No Country‘s prestige yet scraping up a few more nominations than 2009’s A Serious Man or 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Art Films

Nebraska film still

Before Midnight is currently slaying critics and audiences alike. Nebraska and Only God Forgives are respectively setting festivals and trade papers abuzz with claims of epic quality of script and performance. No, this isn’t the early 90s, it’s 2013, and the art film scene is heating up the pre-awards season circuit already.

While Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are busy predicting the “implosion” of the film industry thanks to big-budget studio productions not just cornering a niche market, but backing the entire market into a corner it can’t escape from (funny Spielberg would say this as a criticism and then proceed to executive produce Transformers 4 set for a 2014 release), a select few art films seem poised for Oscar greatness this year.

Before Midnight seems likely to receive a nomination in the Adapted Screenplay category (Before Sunset received one nine years ago amidst the growing cult status for the series, now three entries in), and Nebraska could sneak into the Lead Actor category (Bruce Dern was named Best Actor at Cannes for this role) while Only God Forgives might afford Kristin Scott Thomas a nomination in the Supporting Actress category if her buzz runs consistent through the end of awards season.

Also circling the Oscars in the art film department is Frances Ha, written by actress Greta Gerwig and filmmaker Noah Baumbach and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.

2013 will also be good to:

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Anyone associated with The Past (Berenice Bejo, Asgard Farhadi)
Horror films (The Conjuring is getting early rave reviews as it screens at festivals, The Purge is one of the sleeper hits of the summer)
Matthew McConaughey (snubbed for Magic Mike, he’ll be rewarded with recognition for either Mud or The Wolf of Wall Street)

…and, of course, the Weinstein’s wallets.