Capone's Art-House Round-Up with 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS, Winterbottom's THE LOOK OF LOVE, and BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME!!!
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
20 FEET FROM STARDOM
Not since the great STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN has a music doc done so much justice to a group of individuals who have previous never properly had the spotlight shone upon them. 20 FEET FROM STARDOM takes a thorough and loving look at a group of largely female backup singers whose work you absolutely know, even if you don't know their names. With voices as powerful as Diana Ross or Aretha Franklin, some of these performers made attempts at the spotlight with unheralded albums and concerts, but for reasons that range from bad timing to lack of confidence, women like Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Gloria Jones, Claudia Lennear, Táta Vega and Jo Lawry were known throughout the music world for their glorious voices but never quite made that long journey from the back to center stage.
Much of 20 FEET FROM STARDOM is just these wonderful singers telling stories about performing, recording and otherwise working for top-of-the-bill artists going back to Darlene Love's countless sessions with producer Phil Spector, many of which were credited to other artists, even though she sang lead vocals on so many hit singles. Love is one of the few who managed to get to the spotlight, but only after quitting the music business altogether and cleaning houses for years before deciding to return and regain her crown. In the 1970s, the age of the backup singer was nearing the end in America, but in an effort to sound more soulful, many British artists (Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, among others) hired these singers to record and tour with them.
Merry Clayton's incredible story about being called in the middle of the night to come into the studio pregnant and in curlers to record with the Rolling Stones the unforgettable female vocal on "Gimme Shelter" could be an entire film unto itself. And hearing her isolated vocals from that song will make your knees weak. Clayton's other great story involves her singing background vocals on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" as a form of protest against the racist values the song seems to celebrate.
But the film doesn't stop with just stories; director Morgan Neville makes an attempt to analyze why certain exceedingly talented artists make it and some don't. It quickly becomes clear that a few of them, at least, feel more comfortable in a supporting position. The film spends a great deal of time with singer Lisa Fischer, who continues to tour with the Stones, Sting and many others, and is arguably the finest pure vocalist in the film. But it becomes clear that she's not interested in becoming a headliner, and she ends up becoming a show-stopper during other performers' concerts.
Perhaps the greatest endorsement these unsung musical heroes comes from the artists who hired or admired them, including Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Sting. And lest you think the phenomenon of backup singers is a thing of the past, the film also spotlights recent "The Voice" contestant Judith Hill, who was set to sing behind Michael Jackson on the tour he was rehearsing for when he died (she also sang "We Are the World" at his memorial service). Hill desperately wants to be a solo performer, but will still sometimes take backup gigs for the money, as the film shows. But it's Love's story that has what most will consider the happiest ending, since she was inducted into the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame not long ago, and has been a favorite of everyone from Springsteen to David Letterman for decades And she seems like an absolute wonderful human being despite the many wrongs she's had to endure. You may go to 20 FEET FROM STARDOM for the endless parade of great songs, but you'll leave thinking about the countless, unforgettable tales of woe and triumph.
DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS
In his 2006 debut feature I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH, writer-director-star Jeff Garlin explored in a very sweet and funny way the process those of us who are socially awkward and unconventional go about beginning and maintaining a relationship. And I'll admit, I walked into his latest work, DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS, thinking this was going to be a similarly toned work about the parents Garlin's character Max Morris meets at his son's little league games. I was thinking the film would be light observations humor with a few "these people are crazy" style comments.
What we get instead is something more judgmental, even condemning (and I don't say that as a criticism) of parents who either hover over their kids in the most oppressive way possible or barely notice their kids as they stay glued to their phones or watching anything but their children. Garlin is a keen observer, and the darker tones of DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS makes for a slightly edgier movie in the end. Max is a fairly famous stand-up comic who is looking to make his next movie and decides that this parenting freak show would make a great subject, so he asks the parents and coaches if he can interview and observe them for research, which of course leads to a flurry of activity within the peanut gallery.
Using a largely improvisation approach (although the screenplay is credited to Garlin and Peter Murrieta), Garlin allows actors such as Fred Willard, Bob Odenkirk, Richard Kind, Steve Agree, Kerri Kenney, Gina Gershon, Jami Gertz and his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" co-star J.B. Smoove to cut loose with mixed, mostly funny results. My favorite scenes involve Max with his wife, played by Nia Vardalos, whose dialed-back approach to her character is a nice touch; and Timothy Olyphant, who appears as an influential presence in Max's life (I don't want to be too specific because his identity is kind of a secret), who gives Max some sage advice when he needs it most.
More so than than more scripted CHEESE, DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS catches its cast flailing a bit, and some of the jokes don't land. But the film also isn't meant to be entirely a comedy, as the behavior and attitudes of the whack-job parents begin to rub off on Max and impact his state of mind. The film strikes more of a raw nerve emotionally as Max begins to have doubts about many parts of his life and career, especially when it comes to his parenting. Some may find the movie too angry or mean for its own good, but I liked watching Garlin try out new corners of his acting range. If you don't mind a little naked aggression in your life, this might be the film for you.
For those of you living in Chicago, DEALIN' WITH IDIOTS opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Writer-director-star-Chicagoan Jeff Garlin will be on hand after the 7:20pm shows on Friday and Saturday for audience Q&As, both moderated by me.
THE LOOK OF LOVE
Prolific British director Michael Winterbottom seems to go out of his way to do something different with each new film that it took me by surprise that he's now made four films with 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE star Steve Coogan (they've also done TRISTRAM SHANDY and THE TRIP), and all of their works together stand as some of Winterbottom's most entertaining and artistically satisfying. Perhaps attempting to recapture a bit of Party People's chaotic, decadent vibe, the pair have now made the sexually charged biopic THE LOOK OF LOVE, an examination of the life of erotic entrepreneur Paul Raymond, who owned and operated everything from adult publishing companies to nude revues to strip clubs, and at one point was the richest man in all of England (I'm guessing members of the Royal Family weren't on that list, but maybe they were).
Raymond began his business career as a family man who collected Soho real estate, had a happy marriage to wife Jean (Anna Friel), with whom he had two children, including the beloved Debbie (played as an adult by Imogen Poots). But as Paul became more successful and was constantly surrounded by gorgeous women all wanting to be in his successful nude shows, he indulged in sins of the flesh with other women, with his wife's reluctant permission.
One day, a tall, stunning redhead named Amber (real name Fiona) came to audition for Paul, and he practically forgot his wife's name. As the free-love 1960s transitioned into the drug-fueled 1970s, Paul dumped Jean and took up with the more open-minded Amber, who quickly became a part of his publishing empire as a sex advice columnist. THE LOOK OF LOVE zips through Raymond's life with such energy that it feels like we're getting more of an impression of his life than a detailed account. But the cumulative effect is powerful, especially when the film puts the microscope on his relationship with his daughter, whose singing career he attempts to help launch. Her path down a cocaine highway is ferocious and ugly.
The film borrows some stylistic cues from the likes of THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and BOOGIE NIGHTS, but Winterbottom is careful not to let us ever think too highly of Paul, and Coogan plays him as the bastard he was to nearly everyone around him. If we believe the film's lovely coda, most of the empire he built was for the benefit of his kids, but the way he mistreats them and their mother never really allows us to view him as truly sympathetic or likable. I certainly don't need a likable character at the center of every movie that I enjoy, and Coogan's performance is just the right level of shitheel. There are plenty of other characters to like in this story (Amber, especially), don't worry.
Adding a wonderful pop soundtrack to the mix (including quite a few Burt Bacharach-written numbers) really boosts the enjoyability factor of THE LOOK OF LOVE. While the abrasive qualities of Paul Raymond may be too much for some to bear, I found the performance by Coogan to be so unbelievably watchable that I simply didn't care that he was such a prick. Paul's giant bed with skylight that looked up into the stars when its mirrored ceiling opened up was all I needed to see to know that I would enjoy this film immensely.
BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME
While my knowledge of the music of Big Star is solid, the details of their career and backstory were a complete mystery to me. Courtesy of the extensive documentary from directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, the details of the Memphis-based band that featured former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton is now told through a series of great interviews from both surviving band members, music historians, and long-time famous fans of the group whose commercial success was never as important as their influence on what came after their brief three-album run (all three of which landed on Rolling Stone magazine's top 500 albums of all time).
If you've heard #1 Record, the debut album from 1971 by Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, it's likely you remember the circumstances surrounding your first listen. The band is undeniably talented, but it seemed like it was formed out of Chilton's frustration with being so successful at such a young age as the singer of several big hits in the late 1960s, including the monster single "The Letter." Many in the film make the point that much of Chilton's career has been a series of going in the complete opposite direction of what he's just done, much to the frustration of many fans of Big Star.
NOTHING CAN HURT ME features the usual treasure trove of previously unseen footage, studio outtakes (mostly of conversation and not unreleased music), and revealing interviews (both new and archival) with the band. Perhaps the best stories in the film aren't even about the band; they are about its record company attempting to organize music writers by inviting several dozen of them to Memphis on the company dime and showcasing its artists at a big party, which Big Star headlined and actually got the group of jaded rock journalists to dance.
The film also tracks each band member's lives after the band broke up after its third record, which all admit was essentially a Chilton solo album with Big Star playing behind him. Interviews with members of The Replacements, REM, Flaming Lips and others round out the film nicely and provide the necessary context for Big Star's circle of influence. We get to watch the agonizingly painful life of Chris Bell after the band's demise, and the weird, trippy road that Chilton took until his death three years ago, right before a big tribute to his career was planned at SXSW. The film exudes melancholy for every frame, and that seems wholly appropriate. NOTHING CAN HURT ME is a great journey through the birth of a type of music that doesn't really have a name beyond "great," and defies genres with authority.
-- Steve Prokopy
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