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20 Feet From Stardom Is the Absolute Best

Lisa Fischer, now

20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s documentary about backup singers, deserves an objective review because without any qualifications it is the finest film of 2013 thus far. It channels its subjects’ greatest strengths—big wind, an uncanny ear, a fastidious work ethic, a knack for knowing when to sing and when to stop, and an indomitable spirit—and in doing so pulls back the curtain on a rarely considered world, which is the very best function a documentary can fulfill. What’s more, by suggesting with an infectious, clear-eyed joy how this world connects to everything else, it fulfills one of the very best functions of any movie.

But part of what makes this film so extraordinary is that it summons really personal responses. I’ve seen it twice so far and during both screenings the audiences—full of professional critics!—spontaneously burst into applause and tears more than once. God knows I cried through both showings.

At this point I’ll come clean with my own association with the material. My father, an atheist-Jewish computer science professor hailing from lily-white Massachusetts, has had a lifelong romance with R&B, soul, doo-wop, gospel, blues. Certainly he’s not the only Jewish man in his generation to evince a passion for what’s still sometimes known as black music (I won’t even get into how complicated that is) but his commitment has proven steadfast and often endearing. In our family a Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin album was always spinning on the turntable or pouring out of the car speakers. And at every opportunity he sang those songs himself, warbling in his cracked, earnest falsetto while I did backup.

He taught me young. Starting around 5 or 6, I learned to listen closely so that whenever he’d break into a lead I could chime in with the right oohs, ahhs, babies. I’d croon “No, no, no” while he’d howl Frankie Lymon’s “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.” He’d sing “Respect” and I’d add, “Just a little bit,” just like Aretha’s sisters did. Did I want to sing lead? Not really. I was a daddy’s girl who was fiercely proud to support him as he sang his heart out. But as I began to come into a limelight of my own—around age 11 I started doing some TV spots—my father and I began to part ways. I couldn’t help but observe he preferred to sing lead in his own house, and from this I learned the classic lessons of the backup singer: that sometimes it was better to blend than to shine, that adaptation was necessary for survival, that you had to know when to cut your losses, and that I loved the music for its own sake, regardless of whether I could gain any rewards by doing so.

Darlene and The Blossoms, then

So I get backup singers. And the dynamite news is that Morgan Neville does, too. He doesn’t trip over himself as he carefully builds the arcs of these individual women’s lives into something that is, fittingly, bigger than the sum of its parts. Starting with a credit sequence in which he slyly reappropriates artist John Baldessari’s work by applying dots to the lead singers in vintage R&B images, Neville draws upon whatever works best to tell this ultimate underdog story. He enlists some of the biggest names in the music business—Sting (poncey as ever), Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Freaking Jagger—to lay out the enormity of these women’s contributions to the twin canons of rock and roll and R&B. Wisely, though, he mostly lets the women speak for themselves. Continue Reading →

Joss’ Much Ado About Nothing Is Something Else

It’s no surprise that it took an American who cut his teeth on TV to successfully film a Shakespearean comedy. TV, unlike movies, has always been about the writing, and though the rise of premium cable has changed that to some degree (the lush visuals of Mad Men, including Jon Hamm himself, would have been inconceivable even a decade ago), TV remains more writing-focused than nearly all films that come down the pike.

Still, the sheer pleasure of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing does surprise, if only because a really terrific film always comes as the nicest of surprises. Shot against a modern Southern Californian backdrop in a stylish rather than showy black and white, it looks just good enough to prove undistracting. And peopled with an equally unshowy cast of TV actors rather than movie stars, this Much Ado About Nothing has the good grace to duck an ado about anything. Except the language, which soars here, unadorned by the smoke and mirrors dooming all too many cinematic adaptations of the Bard’s work.

Like TV programs, Shakespeare’s works are truly populist—not so much by throwing a few crumbs to the groundlings as by casting a spell that enchants the largest of human common denominators and raises us all up in the process. There’s a reason his works established the templates upon which nearly all subsequent stories are based. In his plays Shakespeare lays out the most universal, the most timeless, the most glorious messes we humans ever make for ourselves—triangles and intrigues built upon paranoia, greed, lust, envy, self-hatred, tribalism—and then gently coaxes us into revelation by virtue of the words, the words, the words.

The assumption that bumperstickerese and monosyllables are required to reach the “little people” has always been wrongheaded. People from all walks of life comprehend the King James Bible, thous and begats and all, and the same can be said for the diction of Willy Shakes (as is the Bard’s handle on, of all things, Twitter) when it’s allowed to speak for itself. Yet film directors forget that too often, either drowning their adaptations in pomp and circumstance (here’s looking at you, Branagh) or sidestepping the breadth of the verse. Not Joss, though. He who fed strong (and sometimes queer) women to the American viewing public without inciting a major backlash has made a Much Ado both gimmick- and fancy-free. He circumvents the intricate Italian politics that have always plagued this story by updating Leonato and crew as big businessmen. The inobtrusive wardrobe, hair, music, and set here harken back to the 90s, that most stylistically innocuous of decades (and Whedon’s TV hey day, don’t ya know). And it goes without saying that the plot and verse endure very few embellishments.

All the better to lay bare those screwballs, which actually do get rawther sexy. (Shakespeare always does.) Behold Nathan Fillion, who plays Dogberry as a menschy beat cop long resigned to buffoonery. Behold that ultimate TV actor Clark Gregg, who plays patriarch Leonato with gleaming eyes and toothless smile. Best, behold the ever-flashing Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Deniso), who (prat)fall over themselves again and again in their efforts not to be laid bare. In sooth, the fleetfooted wit and eroticism of this production is steeped in just enough pop. It sparkles. It stirs. It does not shake.

The Magical Thinking of Before Midnight

I first saw Scenes From a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish TV series, at the apartment of a man I’d been considering sleeping with for a while. He’d projected it against a wall painted white expressly for our screening, and we sat through about 45 minutes before he shut it off and turned to me. “This is not sexy,” he said flatly, and we promptly fell upon each other like wild dogs. The affair lasted four months, the precise length of time you can date someone before it deepens into something more serious. I wasn’t surprised. We’d consummated the relationship in the long shadow of a film that denied us any shared illusions about love before experience could do that for us.

Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s third film about the romance of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) (not counting the couple’s cameo in the director’s animated Waking Life), is the first in this series that smacks of Bergman—that Bergman, in particular. That’s a big old blast of relationship reality. And no matter how well-rendered, it isn’t the movie magic we clamor for even when it’s what we need. I’m not convinced we ever do.

Before Sunrise (1995) began as Celine, a French university student, and Jesse, an American wandering on a Eurorail pass, met cute as strangers on a train. After a bit of banter, the two jumped off in Vienna, reveling in their connection as they chattered on prettily cobbled streets. That film took visual and narrative cues from its 20something stars—magnetic and effusively philosophical—and left us to moon about the road that might stretch before them. Would they regret it if they did not reunite a year later? Would they regret it if they did? It was a perfectly earnest romance for a generation that didn’t earnestly care about anything, and I floated in its reverie for months. Somewhat improbably, it also spawned a terrific franchise (a subversion of the term, yes) built upon all that chattiness: Celine and Jesse were such well-developed characters that they could reanimate without stumbling like scary zombies.

Before Sunset (2004) found them leaner and more resigned, the elapsing nine years having stripped them of more than just baby fat. Jesse was now an unhappily married father on his first international book tour; she, a single-ish environmental activist who was disillusioned both professionally and romantically, at least partly because their reunion never took place. After she surprised him at a Parisian reading of his work, the two took a walk and, along the way, slowly, slightly sadly made their way back to each other. Though the two never actually had sex in this film, it’s far sexier than its predecessor. Because they had already been disappointed by love, life, and each other, their chemistry was more informed, more dangerous and, by the transitive property of sexual attraction, more magical. As the film drew to a close, she was singing Nina Simone as Nina Simone, and he was about to miss his plane back to New York. A perfectly earnest romance about a generation that no longer could afford not to earnestly care about something. I cried in grateful recognition that true connection was still possible, even between a film and myself.

Before Midnight is the first in this series that didn’t make me cry. It is also the first that focuses upon a relationship that not only has had time to bloom but to wither on the vine. It opens at a Greek airport as Jesse, now 41, is bidding goodbye to his son about to return home to New York, where he lives with his mother. The teenager is sweetly patient with his distraught father but also removed: a good kid acquainted with his parents’ failings long before he should have been.

Wrecked, Jesse wobbles outside where Celine, jabbering into a cell phone, waves. They climb into their car, and, while their two golden-haired daughters sleep like tiny Celines in the backseat, begin to talk. Since we’ve just witnessed Jesse’s heartbreak, it’s a shock that the conversation begins with Celine telling him about a new job offer. Enter the sometimes brutal, if necessary, indifference required to sustain daily life in a long-term romance. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy