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Documentary ’20 Feet from Stardom’ deserved Academy Award
When I speak to journalism students I tell the story of New York columnist Jimmy Breslin. It goes something like this: Breslin covered the burial of President Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. As a modest group of media members were gathered around the gravesite, Breslin wandered off into the distance. He talked to the gravedigger and wrote an award winning column.
Real stories live in the background.
That’s why “20 Feet From Stardom” deserved the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at Sunday’s 86th Academy Awards. The field also included “The Act of Killing,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” “Dirty Wars” and “The Square.”
Darlene Love, the emotional heartbeat of “20 Feet From Stardom” did a ton of pre-Oscar press. Also, the film’s producer Gil Friesen died of leukemia in December 2012 as the documentary was nearing completion. Friesen was the former president of A&M Records (Herb Alpert & Jerry Moss; Alpert liked to say Friesen was the ampersand in A&M.) The A&M film division also produced the 1985 John Hughes fllm “The Breakfast Club.”
“20 Feet From Stardom” tells the bumpy stories of some of the music industry’s most giving back-up singers: Love, who as a member of the Blossoms, sang behind Sam Cooke and Frank Sinatra and Merry Clayton, who laid down the scorching “rape, murder, just a shot away” vocal riff on the Rolling Stones 1969 hit “Gimme Shelter” and many others.
Life lessons become clear in this documentary. A strong sense of self-identity is needed to sustain in the background. Some of the film’s subjects speak of sacrificing the spotlight for balance in life.
Director Morgan Neville (“Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story,” “Johnny Cash’s America”) snagged Bruce Springsteen and a jumpy Mick Jagger to talk about the lost art of background singing, it was Dr. Mable John, a former Stax-Tamala Records singer-turned-preacher who summed up the weight of the job: “Check out your worth,” she says. “Because your worth is more than that.” (John, a Detroit native, is the sister of the late soul singer Little Willie John.)
Expect more and more documentaries. In recent times cameras and gear has become more affordable. Anyone with a smartphone can be a documentarian and raise money on Kickstarter. It is more difficult than ever to stay in the background.
Filmmaker Greg “Freddy” Camalier never attended film school. Last year’s “Muscle Shoals” documentary was his directorial debut. I thought “Muscle Shoals” had even more staying power than “20 Feet From Stardom.” “Muscle Shoals” was finally released on DVD and Blue Ray on Feb. 25. Rick Hall, Spooner Oldham and others signed DVDs in a release party at the Muscle Shoals Walmart Super-Center in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Now that’s in the background.