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.

The Evils of Passivity; “Blackfish” and Viewer Duty


We’re so very good at viewing.

It’s in our nature. Our eyes desire motion for consumption, drawn to kinetic energy in a magnetic bond too powerful to describe. It’s an ugly truth that what fascinates us is most often something elusive to our grasp. Mystery equals wonder, and wonder equals desire.  As humans, it’s also in our nature to actively seek out that which beckons our interest, even if it’s dangerous. Killer whales, like the ones at the heart of the rousing Blackfish, fit into a dangerous mold; they are a combination of spectacle and overwhelming power we cannot–and were never meant to–control.

The recently-released documentary by Gabriela Cowperhwaite, Blackfish, shows us how SeaWorld parks around the country have removed an essential part of the equation of spectacle. They’ve made it easy for us to view these animals as nothing more than 12,000-pound toys, ripping them from their homes in the wild to display them for our sense of bewonderment. SeaWorld marketing has conditioned us to accept them as larger-than-life plush dolls living happily ever after in the dream that is by all means simply a concrete jail cell for our entertainment.

But, we live for the spectacle of their performance. To consume spectacle is to be human, and harnessing the power of spectacle inflates our egos that much more. It’s not like they were modestly-sized in the first place. To assume that, as we see in the first twenty minutes of Blackfish, we are entitled so much as to pluck these beautiful creatures from their homes in the wild in the first place is a moral sin in itself. We see grown men, hardened from years of regret, crying onscreen as they recount the sounds of wild Orca wailing for their young. Regret is a testament to evil, and SeaWorld has a lot of explaining to do for their despicable actions.

Blackfish does its best to remain a barrage of facts and firsthand testimony versus a sledgehammering of an angled agenda. We’re given the facts. We’re spoken to as straightforward as possible. We’re presented evidence to refute our pre-conceived ideas about happiness as as synonym for SeaWorld and its various parks. If you can think for yourself, you’ll see that there are two villains at the conclusion of Blackfish; One is obviously SeaWorld management. Park officials covered up the bloody track-record of Tilikum, a massive breeder Orca, before he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010 during a routine performance. He’d killed two other people prior to Brancheau’s death, yet SeaWorld management sees it beneficial to keep him around, literally milking him for sperm to produce countless offspring for their other parks. They fudge facts, feeding their visitors bullshit about Orcas living longer in captivity than in the wild; that dorsal fin collapse is normal; They even strip young whales away from their parents, though Orcas are known to be some of the (if not the most) socially-dependant creatures on earth. In fact, if there ever was a scene that has the potential to haunt those who see it for the rest of their lives, it comes about halfway through Blackfish when a mother whale’s cries for its daughter, whom SeaWorld management chose to move to another park thousands of miles away. There’s no skimping around what SeaWorld is doing. It’s cornering the market on abuse, and we’re eating it up all so Jimmy and Susie can be entertained for ten minutes while on vacation.


It then becomes clear that our inactivity–the world’s inactivity, at that–is largely responsible for filling villain slot #2. I’ve never felt more uncomfortable watching a film, because as rousing as it is, Blackfish is a disturbing chronicle of the world’s ignorance, and it must be massively-consumed. It’s the exact opposite of the picture-perfect paradise SeaWorld wants you to believe in.

When a film like Blackfish comes along, it begs us as heralds of film to do something about the subjects it depicts. There’s a different edge to a film like this. We’re coming to it because we want to be educated about things going on in our world. It’s not entertainment. It’s not about making us comfortable as viewers in our cozy little theater chairs shoveling our faces with popcorn. It’s a shared experience of pain, made for us to look back at ourselves for letting this kind of irresponsible behavior go on.

We must champion these films that inspire action, because that’s where the power of the medium of film shines, and essentially transcends merely being about whatever it is we’re watching onscreen. A movie is a movie, but a movie can also be an agent of change. To inspire emotion and escapism is one thing, and fiction is a powerful tool for that. Narrative fiction is beautiful, but when a lens becomes a sword, the topic tangible, and the subjects implicating, is when film becomes more than just a popcorn experience. Emotion is a powerful thing that film can inspire, but something like Blackfish becomes more than just a movie for the causes it sheds light on. It inspires what movies can and so rarely do outside of the individual; collective action to right a wrong. As consumers, we have the power to eradicate the evils we see in Blackfish, and it’s here that the importance of film shines. Films which beg us for–or almost require–activism MUST be pushed forward. So I beg you: See this film. Because, while we’re experts at viewing, we’ve come to forget that action is a far more important duty than our own self-service.

Blackfish shows us how our hungry eye can lead to unimaginable evil; how a corporation can manipulate our desire to learn about the world around us–to become closer to the nature we’ve continuously grown further away from–and turn it into a virtual monopoly on cruelty. SeaWorld has removed a sense of accomplishment that comes from viewing an animal in the wild. The final shots of Blackfish show us a typical pod as it swims peacefully. We’re transfixed by the natural beauty, of being so privileged to see something so naturally complete. Film so often wants to indulge our yearning for this type spectacle by festering as a desire to passively consume. Blackfish is that idea’s antithesis; let us actively create a spectacle of change that exists far beyond the borders of a movie theater.