Category Archives: 60’s

20 Feet from Stardom

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" Portraits - 2013 Sundance Film Festival

20 Feet from Stardom, a documentary by Morgan Neville, opens with an oddly wooden Bruce Springsteen (botox, plastic surgery?) explaining how rock-and-roll backup singers have to be even better than the headliner.  Other rock demi-gods agree, but by the end of the movie we become aware that despite legions of praise by the headliners, it’s only on these special occasions where backup singers get their due.

Neville circles around this theme, suggesting that the lack of recognition stems from factors such as racism, record company politics, lack of ego in the singers, “fate” (a reason offered by the wizened Sting), and finally a healthy lack of ambition.   While it’s helpful to present options, the lack of a central point-of-view made this film less successful than it could have been for me.  In the meantime though we get to see and hear some great unheralded performances.

Just how vital backup singers are to a song is demonstrated in one of the first sequences, the Talking Heads “Slippery People”, where, perhaps on purspose the backup vocals are muted:slippery

The backup singers add variety, dynamics, call-and-response, support, and in this particular case, some fantastic dancing.

“20 Feet” then delves into the history of background singing, back to the tame, white-girl singers who would accompany crooners like Perry Como.















The film then wisely focuses on some of the pioneer female black singers, including Darlene Love, who resorted to cleaning houses after he contract was manipulated by Phil Spector:
















We see a scene where she does a  duet with Tom Jones  and he does not benefit from the comparison.

Merry Clayton’s star turn in the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” is played in isolation, and it gave me chills.  She did the takes while pregnant and in curlers, called out of her bed to a late-night recording session.













Clayton’s solo career was short-lived.  Above we see her belting out a version of Neal Young’s “Southern Man” that knocks your socks off.

“Gimme Shelter” has been sung live since 1989 by Lisa Fischer.  I found her to be the most gifted of the featured artists.  Here’s her one hit as a solo artist:

The explanation given is that she did not want to, it was not in her personality not everybody needs to grab the spotlight.  Yet with all of these singers there is a wistfulness and sadness about not being able to step out of the shadows.

Finally we see the up-and-comer Judith Hill:
















Will she make it?  The film stops short of casting her as a redeeming figure, ending on an uncertain note when it comes to her solo career.  After watching 2014 Winter Olympic coverage, and sitting through countless exhortative “follow your dream” big corporation commercials, I took this as a welcome grace note.

Well, THAT’S the pot calling the kettle “beige”


I thought “The Boys in the Band” would be a campy ridiculous movie, redeemed only by its groundbreaking status as one of the first mainstream films that dealt with homosexuality.  Instead I found it to be thoughtful, serious, well-written, and brilliantly-acted.  Its dubious reputation is the result of homophobic film reviewers (the dark side of Pauline Kael) and the fact that, as gay liberation blossomed, the gay community felt a need to distance itself from the subject of self-loathing.

In terms of camp, many primetime t.v. shows now feature outre gay characters for comic effect.  Every “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” owes an immense debt to Mart Crowley (writer, producer) and William Friedkin (director).   The point to this campiness in 1970 was to establish that this was not going to be a film about assimilation, about how gay people are just like anyone else except maybe more sad.  Instead this film would show a (literal) walled garden where gay men acted as they would were nobody watching.

The result was pathos, similar in tone to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). in which the reigning heterosexual king and queen of the movies, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, exposed a self-loathing just as deep.

The plot is strikingly similar, an outsider arrives and witnesses the reality that lies beneath surface appearances.  In “The Boys in the Band” Peter White, as straight college chum Alan,  plays the naif role that belonged to George Segal and Sandy Dennis in “Woolf”.  Both movies started as stage plays and feature strong acting ensembles.

Leonard Frey, as Harold, the “thirty-two year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” is particularly compelling.  And I just don’t see performances like Kenneth Nelson’ as Michael – breaking down at the end of the movie when the reality of his situation hits him – in movies today.  Maybe I am watching the wrong movies.  The movie ends with a note of hope: after Harold verbally demolishes  hypocritical, abusive Michael, he leaves and as he is going says “Call you tomorrow…”  underscoring that their friendship will survive even this .  I have to admit to envying the depth of their connection, most friendships between heterosexual men, mine included, seem mannered and fearful in comparison.

“The Boys in the Band” highlights for me the terrible treatment gays have received up until a short time ago.  As I’ve mentioned before,  the good old days weren’t so good for gays, blacks or anyone different.  Which causes me to think about which groups are marginalized today in a way that we won’t acknowledge as a society until decades hence.  I think certainly animals: Jonathan Safer Foer’s “Eating Animals” seemed to me to be a necessary call-out to Michal Pollan’s evasive “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. I struggle with this issue practically daily and haven’t been able to convert to vegetarianism.   Other groups might include the physically ugly –  the greatest most-unspoken discrimination ever I think, the aged, and, in terms of sexuality, BDSM practitioners, acceptance of whom is slowly becoming more mainstream, at least if you go by porn as a leading indicator.

Most of the actor’s in “The Boys in the Band” died in the first part of the AIDS epidemic.  To me they were brave, and their work showed us a glimpse into “real” life,  often I think art, movies, films, culture are the only true public glimpse into what’s actually going on people’s heads.  To dismiss “The Boys in the Band” as campy self-loathing says more about the reviewer than the film.

Chicago 10: Gen X’er gets the 60’s wrong


1968-born director Brett Morgan makes two excellent choices in creating “Chicago 10”: to avoid the use of 60’s songs in the soundtrack, and to employ a fluid style of animation for much of the picture. Ultimately though he proves himself to be unwilling to grapple with the complexities and emotional underpinnings of the events of the 1960’s, and the result is a mashed-up documentary without a point of view, rather than a serious film.

In a “Fresh Air” interview, Morgan explained that because the anthemic music of the 60’s has been so thoroughly co-opted by Madison Avenue, he could no longer use it in the movie. He’s right. Imagine hearing “Revolution” by the Beatles while watching documentary footage of a protest march: it’s only a matter of time before the Nike logo appears. Morgan instead employs modern music, although it’s a stretch to say that the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine are truly contemporary.

The near 3-dimensional animation used throughout the film is detailed enough to allow you actually look into the character’s mouths, but it serves the traditional reductive purposes of puppetry: to take the audience out of context, to remove the prejudices inherent in viewing human actors, to symbolize reality rather than portray it. These opportunties are squandered. Instead, 70’s-sitcom-viewer Morgan uses animation as a comic counterpoint to the harsh documentary film footage of the Chicago riots.

From time to time the totemic potential of using animated characters emerges though. Watching a cartoon Abbie Hoffman doing stand-up short-circuits all those “oh god it’s political stand-up” thoughts, he is free to function as a greek chorus, commenting on the action in the courtroom that took place earlier that day.

But for the most part “Chicago 10” fails to provide context. There is brief footage of the announcement of Martin Luther King’s death, but no sense of the the reasons for the worldwide social changes that were coming to a head in 1968, and no in-depth examination of the burgeoning youth demographic as it realized the moral bankruptcy of the old guard.

Morgan makes no attemp to reconcile the urgent protests of 1968 with the Sarandon/Mumia/Earth-First watered-down antiwar protests of today.   Imagine how energized Iraq war protests be if there were an active draft and big daily casualty counts like there were in Vietnam.  Jim Crow laws were in effect a up until the mid-60’s. “Loving vs. Virginia” was a court case that ended race-based restrictions on marriage. It was decided in 1967.

“Chicago 10” inadvertently minimizes the legitimacy of opposition to these injustices by focusing on the antics of the defendants. We don’t see the pain and frustration of a real human beings. Instead we see the Yippies descend on a city officials office and threaten to put LSD in the city water if they aren’t given the permit they want. Grainy film footage of cops wielding billyclubs substitutes for the more complicated social grievances rather than symbolizing them. Similarly the much-touted courtoom shackling of defendant Bobby Seale at the hands of a deliciously insidious Judge Julius Hoffman functions as a calculated shorthand for addressing racial injustice, which is absent elsewhere in the film.

It’s unreasonable to expect a single fim to capture the complexity of the 60’s, but “Chicago 10” doesn’t come close. Director Morgan, a child of the 70’s, babies the audience, using the animated sequences for emotional relief when the documentary footage gets frightening or boring. He puts the drama in a courtroom where he knows there is only farce. Opportunities for real drama abound: in the latter part of the film there is footage of Allen Ginsberg deciding, as he talks, whether or not to go on a prohibited march where there may be violence. What would you have done? What if you had just been drafted? And why did this idealism die? Why did this gritty passion get swept away into the Pina Colada 70’s?

Credit needs to be given to Brett Morgan for addressing this time in history. And to Roy Schieder for his wonderful voiceover of Julius Hoffman. But in the end “Chicago 10” doesn’t even rise to the level of received wisdom, it’s received footage.

Lumet loves Lattices: The Pawnbroker


(photo from K. Silam Mohammad’s


“The Pawnbroker” stars Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor who becomes a pawnbroker in Spanish Harlem in the early-60’s. This places the action 20 years out from WWII, roughly the same time that has passed since the first Desert Storm — not a long time.  It must have been even more powerful to see this harrowing film in the 1960’s than it is today.

Steiger has a sheer presence that makes minor quibbles, like his hard-to-place accent, inconsequential. The weight of experience is so heavy upon the main character, Mr. Nazerman, that he can only respond to people in the most perfunctory manner. All social niceties have left him. Thus when the pimp who is laundering money through Nazerman’s pawnshop mockingly calls him “Professor”, Nazerman simply hangs up the phone. Or when a junkie, trying to sell a gimcrack radio, berates him as a “filthy blood-sucking kike”, he barely glances up as he replies “Still at the same address?”. Seeing this disregard for social convention is a guilty pleasure, like watching Michael Imperioli of The Soproanos pull out a gun in order to get faster service in a donut shop. It brings you over to Nazerman’s side, a dangerous place to be, because when the emotions do come out, they will be titanic.

Lumet uses grids and latticework as a symbol of confinement throughout the film: the metal protective metal grid inside the pawnshop, often casting shadows on the characters, the fancy cross-hatched room divider in the pimp Rodriguez’ pad, the railing on the patio of the social worker’s apartment, the barbed wire in the flashbacks to the concentration camp. And who can blame Nazerman for staying within the lines?

Ultimately though, Nazerman discovers that his business is being financed through prostitution, he flashes back to images of his wife (girlfriend?) in Nazi “Joy Division” sexual slavery, and he has a breakdown. The final scene is of Steiger plunging his hand through the sharp ticket-holder spine, then wandering the streets of Spanish Harlem, staring at his stigmata, shortly after his assistant has been killed in a botched robbery attempt.

The power of Steiger’s performance isn’t in the shaking and grimacing though, it’s in his non-reactivity. Being non-reactive is a high-status trait, and we find it intriguing that Nazerman, essentially a schlemiel who is at the behest of petty crooks, can carry himself with such authority. Perhaps we fellow schlemiels can model ourselves after him in some way.

Yet there is an underlying tension of knowing that, in order to achieve this equanimity, he must essentially kill the parts of himself that are human, and this cannot last for long. How tempting it would be for an actor of lesser stature to give up on this theme, to instead portray the character as angry or simmering, and to try to force meaning into the dialog that Steiger wisely treats as throwaway. Steiger rejects poignancy and is a master of self-control. Thus when he breaks down it is all the more terrible.

Minor notes and other gulity pleasures: Interiors are shot with that old klieg-light style that makes every character look like an escaped prisoner pinned against a prison drainpipe. The apartment furnishings inside Brock Peter’s apartment are authentic Saarinen pedestal items (Saarinen claimed he wanted to provide a “solution for clearing up the slums of legs in US homes”) and Eames chairs. Peter’s manservant looks like a photographic negative of himself, instead of a black man in white clothing it’s a white man with silver hair in black clothing, an early Andersen Cooper type.

1940’s meet the 1960’s: “Go Man Go!”


A charming time-capsule starring another charismatic but forgotten actor, Dane Clark (not the execrable Dane Cook), alongside a young Sidney Poitier, “Go Man Go!” features a bebop score by Slim Galliard, who was a favorite of Jack Kerouac. I wonder what the connection with “On the Road” is — I remember the phrase “Go Man Go” as an exhortation Sal Paradise shouted out to improvising jazz musicians.

Slim Galliard makes an appearance, playing a piano with his fingers upside down for a small gathering of Globetrotters. I love Kerouac’s description of a Galliard concert:

‘… we went to see Slim Gaillard in a little Frisco nightclub. Slim Gaillard is a tall, thin Negro with big sad eyes who’s always saying ‘Right-orooni’ and ‘How ’bout a little bourbon-arooni.’ In Frisco great eager crowds of young semi-intellectuals sat at his feet and listened to him on the piano, guitar and bongo drums.”

“…Then he slowly gets up and takes the mike and says, very slowly, ‘Great-orooni … fine-ovauti … hello-orooni … bourbon-orooni … all-orooni … how are the boys in the front row making out with their girls-orooni … orooni … vauti … oroonirooni …” He keeps this up for fifteen minutes, his voice getting softer and softer till you can’t hear. His great sad eyes scan the audience.”

What kills me is “ovauti“, it makes sense next to “o-rooni” but it’s so weird, where is it coming from? It’s perfect though.

That’s the 1950’s part of this movie, the 1940’s part consists of stereotypical interactions between Clark as Abe Saperstein, Bill Stern (as himself) a hard-bitten but honest sportswriter, and the evil Potter-like sports magnate Mr. Willoughby. The Bowery-Boys-style slang they use — “Hey ya mug! Ya gonna be a chump all your life? Of course you’re invited!” — is the direct precursor of today’s crushingly unimaginative board-room Ebonics appropriation: “Quarterly earnings doubled? Girl, go on with your bad self!”. It was probably just as hard to listen to back then.

The 1960’s part of the movie is best shown in the final scene, Abe Saperstein, arm-in-arm with the Globetrotters, walking triumphantly towards the camera, in a hopeful message of racial healing. Shades of Blackboard Jungle. I can’t recall another movie from the 1950’s that was this hopeful and unabashed about race. Today’s derivative ironic culture cannibalizes sentiment like this.

“Go Man Go” also has something to say about acting. In an early scene real-life Globetrotter “Sweetwater Clifton” speaks some lines about how he likes soda pop (the origin of his nickname). He delivers them woodenly, although with charm. This is the low end of the acting scale.

Raising the bar, Dane Clark as Abe Saperstein, shows real conviction, but he’s always hitting something when he acts. “I’m going to get us into big arenas if it’s the last thing I do!’ (SMACK). It’s as if the director fired him up before every scene (“Now this time really mean it!”) without thinking what the cumulative effect would be. Clark’s “average Joe” always seems to be in a harangue.

The best actor in the movie is Sidney Poitier, in a relatively minor role, who pops up from time-to-time to speak a few impassioned lines. He does so with quiet conviction, and having seen the other actors telegraph and flail, one gets a sense of the star quality of Sidney Poitier.

A couple of minor points about this movie: it is exemplary in showing what I like to call “old-time small basketball court syndrome”, action shot in a remarkably cramped gym. Another film that features this is “Angels with Dirty Faces” where the players are dodging trapezes and other non-basketball equipment as they play on a tiny court.

“Go Man Go” made me think of why, although everyone knows Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, no one knows who did it in the NBA. It turns out that Charles Cooper was the first drafted, Nat Clifton was the first signed, and Earl Lloyd the first to play in a game, all in 1950. Even though it’s complicated, I would think this deserves a little more recognition. Is it because basketball is not “America’s Game”?