Category Archives: documentaries

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.

Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Absent (thanks to HBO)
















It’s hard to decide which is more depressing: the state of American film criticism or the current quality of mainstream documentaries.  In “Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Present” HBO Documentaries and Matthew Akers have made a film that undermines the power of her seminal career, and that’s a considerable feat.

Critics are lauding “The Artist is Present”: Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles times calls it “A riveting portrait”.  It’s easier for them to conflate subject with film, than it is to analyze what does and doesn’t work in this piece. The truth is that t.v. director Akers has cobbled together a couple of bad Lifetime t.v. episodes, called it a documentary and done Abramovic a disservice.

Marina Abramovic is a hard-core performance artist whose best work has brought “negative” elements such as stillness, grief, hunger, pain, and isolation into sharp focus, through works that often involve great endurance and physical suffering.










“In 1997 she performed Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale. It involved her scrubbing clean 1,500 cow bones six hours a day for four days and weeping as she sang songs and told stories from her native country” (Sean O’Hagan, Guardian UK).

In “Rhythm 0” she lay quietly next to 72 objects, including a loaded gun, scissors, and a whip, and let museum-goers do whatever they wanted to her.  As time passed the audience became more aggressive, cutting up her clothes and poking her with thorns.

“The Artist is Present” is organized around the event of her eponymous 2010 MoMA exhibition.  There she sat silent and immobile for 7 hours a day while museum spectators took turns sitting opposite her.  As the exhibition continued, Abramovic’s rock-star status began to grow – people would camp out overnight for the chance to sit with her.  Eventually she became so popular that tight controls were placed on spectators, they could only sit for 4 minutes at a time, whereas before the time was unimited, they could not make any gestures or sounds.  There is a touching scene where a young woman removes her dress as she sits down and is swiftly escorted away by the security squad.  This is jarring because most of Abramovic’s work involves her being nude, we get very familiar with her body.  Witnessing young fan shut down for that act of emulation is ironic and telling, but this goes unexplored.

Instead the focus is on the crying.  Many attendees tear-up when looking at the impassive queen-bee-like Abrmovoic, in her religious-looking smock.  The soundtrack repeats the sins of  “March of the Penguins”, a cloying musical score, telling us dummies that “it’s time to feel now”.  A montage of artfully-focused ethnically-and-age-balanced faces, in varying stages of composure, felt like a Benetton ad.  Akers should have been smart enough to realize that viewers can’t help but intuit the tarnished corporate halo in this aesthetic.  Too many t.v. ads are like this, especially ones for big “faceless” corporations.  It’s about as far from cleaning bloody bones as you can get.

Focusing on a singlular event feels like a panicky move by documentarians.  Sure there are some films where the event is the event (“The Last Waltz”), but here it’s used as a way to expose the artist, and honestly I did not know much about Marina after 2 hours than I did after 15 minutes. And the fact that the film literally ends with her final bow at MoMA makes me think that Akers didn’t have the curiousity to explore the question “What is it like to enter the normal world after that intense level of communication with thousands of people?”

As I’ve suggested before, the way to make documentaries interesting is to show themes, to then illustrate patterns within those themes, and then to identify when and why those patterns are broken.  That is all the event you need.  And indeed the audience wants something to happen in any performance.  Focusing on an orchestrated “happening” can cover up the actual personal changes that make for narrative.

What are some of those themes that could have been explored?  In the beginning of the film we see Marina in her huge NYC loft, also at her beautiful Hudson Valley farmhouse.  Later she enters a truck that she livd in for 5 years in Europe (it has been brought to MoMA as an exhibit) and begins weeping, saying that this was the simplest, happiest time of her life.    She is visited by her former lover, Ulay, with whom she lived in the truck.  He is deflated by her wealth, you can see he longs for that level of material success.

So to me a central question raised by the film was “What does success mean and what has it done to the artist?”  Is she less successful now that she is “successful”?  What is the significance of the change from allowing the audience to do anything they want  (“Rhythm 0”) to being prohibited from make a simple gesture (“The Artist is Present”)?

Another theme is artist vs. art. Marina admits to craving attention, to using performance as a way of getting the love she didn’t as a neglected child.  Does this minimize the value of her statements about war and suffering?  If she were to find love, would her art suffer?  She says that when her performances with Ulay were at their best, their personal relationship was at it’s worst.  What does this say about art?

There are many other areas in this artist’s life that would have been fruitful to explore.  Instead, by the end, I felt like an audience member denied my time across from Marina.

Jazz gets it’s ass kicked by Korean shaman who then dies

“Intangible Asset 82” is an independent film which chronicles Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker’s trip to Korea in search of grand-master shaman drummer Kim Seok-Chul.  The title of the movie refers to the fact that the South Korean government has declared Seok-Chul to be a national “intangible” asset.  I bought the dvd after seeing a recital by Barker and some traditional Korean muscians at Lincoln Center’s “Target Free Thursdays.”

At the recital Barker tells the story of first heard the grandmaster on a rare recording.  The person who played the recording for him said something like “this is an example of awful drumming.”  Barker’s reaction was that this was the best thing he ever heard in his life and he wanted to find out all about it.

This is a great start.  He likes what other people hate, this chaotic free-form improvisatory drumming.   As a jazz drummer he must have had a degree of freedom to improvise, but nothing like what he heard on the recording.  I find that jazz, in general, despite its reputation for creativity and freedom, can often seem bland and overly formalized.  Think of how much jazz sounds the same, or of the traditionalist spoutings of this guy:

I would rather hear Koreans banging on pots and pans than Wynton Marsalis hectoring me on the classicism of Louis Armstrong.

Barker visited Korea seventeen times before this final trip, where he meets Seok-Chul just days before the shaman dies.   Along the way we meet various other shamans and traditional musicians.  We are told that the apprenticeship for being a shamanic singer is to live in a hut by a waterfall for several years, and to shout at the top of one’s lungs for literally seventeen hours a day.  Have you ever tried to shout at the top of your lungs for 10 minutes?

I wished that Barker would have taken a more questioning approach to Korean music and culture.  For example, he often describes Korean rhythms as “incredibly complex”.   The point is made several times that improvisation is based on rigorous technique and years of study.  I didn’t hear this.   As an erstwhile drummer I didn’t hear time signatures being changed, or intersecting polyrhythms, I just heard pleasant banging.  But I liked the banging, and I like the traditional singing, which was most often  like a throaty wail.  It seemed highly improvised and honest.  I didn’t see the need to justify it.

Barker seemed blissed out for most of the film, like a Deadhead (another genre I don’t get) and the soft-focus cinematography reflected his mood.  Lots of sunrises and sunsets, lights blinking on, picturesque old men in the public square, little children running.  Like a K.A.L. commercial.   My reaction to this was that I was being sold something.    Perhaps he was trying to put a sweet coating on a challenging type of music that can sound harsh and simultaneously chaotic and repetitive.  I longed for a happy traditional Korean tune.


Sometimes not a great notion


Last night I caught about 30 seconds of Ken Burn’s latest paean: “The National Parks”, which was quite enough.  I already feel as though I’ve watched the entire series. “The National Parks are the enduring treasure of the great experiment that IS the United States….”  Substitute “Jazz”, “Baseball”, “The Brooklyn Bridge”,  “The Statue of Liberty”, the works of “Mark Twain”, buildings by “Frank Lloyd Wright”, the legacy of “Lewis and Clark”, “Susan B. Anthony”, “The West”, the experience of being black in America…

It’s not that these subjects aren’t fascinating and historically significant, it’s that he’s putting them all through the same Ken Burns sausage-grinder.  I loved watching this treament perhaps twice: Civil War, Lewis and Clark – great stuff, tear in my eye.  But not everything can be THE sepia-toned emblem of the great notion/dream/experiment that is America.

What next?  Pike’s Peak, Amelia Earhart, the automobile, Father Coughlin, Vaudeville, Vietnam, Kennedy, Television, Robber Barons, Country Music, Los Angeles, Newspapers.  What is this guy going to homogenize next? I don’t want to see these archived in his gimbel-eyed  exhausted style.  They deserve a fresh attack.

To me there is something about the narrative style of documentaries that invites corruption, after all, they are always “telling” you something, and leaving other things out.  If somehow a documentarian could focus not on substantive events, but on patterns, might this be more revealing?

I remember watching David Frosts’ interview with Nixon, where Nixon utters a heartfelt mea culpa, saying that he had let the country down. He seemed genuinely aggrieved.  I can’t imagine this coming from a modern politician (“Were errors in judgment made, yes…”)   Assume Nixon is neither good nor bad, and I know this is hard to do,  then you are free to focus on his ambition, and the way it manifested itself compared to a dessicated clinician like Barack Obama.  Can Nixon’s way of doing it not succeed today?  Why not?  These are  interesting questions to me and are not dependent on the question of right and wrong.

There was another quote from the “National Parks” documentary:  “50 years from now my grandaughter can visit this place and it will look to her just like it looks to me.”    I think Ken Burn’s wants us to feel that we are dots on a timeline of an immutable “American” (thus special) narrative.  While this is comforting and makes us feel kinship with historical figures, I don’t buy it, with history, things are never as they seem.  Burn’s intellectual contribution is fading and curling at the edges.