Monday, July 22, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom and BET RAISE FOLD

Over the weekend Vera and I had the chance to have a nice evening out grabbing some Thai food and then taking in a movie, the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom that debuted at Sundance early this year. It was an entertaining and edifying movie, full of great music and some thoughtful commentary about a variety of topics, including the way we choose our roles in this life and/or our roles choose us.

The film focuses on the lives of background singers, compiling both performances and many interviews with musicians and industry types in order to highlight various challenges faced by those who make a career on stage performing in front of audiences yet not being the center of attention. Many different singers appear or are mentioned along the way, but ultimately the film concentrates on presenting the stories of five women in particular, all of whom have had lengthy careers backing major pop, rock, and R&B acts for many decades.

Like I say, the music was terrific and especially well utilized in the film, and we left the theater talking about certain sequences in particular such as the story of Darlene Love’s many contributions to various girl groups 45s of the 1960s and Merry Clayton’s stirring turn on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

One theme of the film is how the backup singers often fail to get credit or notice for their work, with one obvious purpose of director Morgan Neville being to right a wrong in this regard. But the movie also shows how some who choose the path of the background singer do so deliberately, finding more pleasure and satisfaction in that role than in stepping out in front to be leader.

That latter point is one that probably connects more readily with a wider audience, I think, namely, the idea that not only is it not possible for us all to be stars, but the fact is a lot of us are content not to be in the spotlight. Such an idea transcends the subject matter, really, connecting with a wider audience most of whom may like (or love) music but who aren’t artists or musicians. The movie also ably makes the point that some -- perhaps many -- prefer to harmonize with others, rather than sing alone (both literally and figuratively).

I won’t go too much further into the film, as I don’t really intend to write a full-fledged review here. You can find plenty of those on the web, anyway. Here is the trailer, though, to give you more of a taste:

After watching 20 Feet From Stardom I additionally found myself thinking again about BET RAISE FOLD: The Story of Online Poker, which happens to be the most recent documentary I’d seen prior to this one. I’ve mentioned that movie here a couple of times, and I did write a full review of that film for Flushdraw last month.

Both films seek to present a subculture to their audiences, although 20 Feet From Stardom enjoys an advantage in this regard as the world of rock and pop music is much more familiar to most than is that of online poker. Both kind of follow a similar trajectory, too, in the way they touch on broader historical contexts (i.e., online poker and the music industry) but ultimately spend more energy profiling individuals and their experiences within those contexts, in both cases highlighting the hardships of their career paths.

Even though I’m an online poker player -- or was, at least -- and therefore very familiar with the world being presented in BET RAISE FOLD, I strangely found it a lot easier to identify with the background singers in 20 Feet than had been the case with BET RAISE FOLD, although Danielle Andersen’s story involving her family does give viewers plenty with which to connect.

I suppose both films could be considered as “defending” the career paths taken by their subjects, and as I suggest above in both cases the films suggest that in many ways those paths “chose” them and not vice-versa. Both also pursue a tried-and-true tactic of documentary film by introducing audiences to direct their attention into places where they might not have looked otherwise, not only portraying a subculture but also perhaps introducing the whole idea (to some viewers) of such a subculture existing.

As I’ve already pointed out, the makers of 20 Feet From Stardom dealt in much more familiar territory in this latter regard, one of many advantages they had over those who pulled together BET RAISE FOLD. In any case, I recommend both. You might be able to catch 20 Feet From Stardom in a theater near you, while BET RAISE FOLD is now available for purchase online at the film’s website.

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