Sunday, January 25, 2015

Documentary roundtable

Ava: February 22nd, the 87th Academy Awards presentation will air on ABC.  For the purpose of this roundtable, we're dropping back to last year's awards to note the winner for Best Documentary Feature.  Betty's kids did the illustration. You are reading a rush transcript.


Ava (Con't):  Let me toss to Stan whose idea it was to do something on this film.

Stan: 20 Feet from Stardom is a documentary directed by Morgan Neville which focuses on a few backup singers.  I enjoyed performances -- both archival and ones appearing for the first time in the film -- by Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Darlene Love and The Waters, among others.  If you focus on those performances and on some people who deserve larger recognition getting that recognition you can applaud the film. I think it was worthy of the Academy Award and the only other possible winner last year was Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer's The Square.  These were attempts at truth -- as opposed to a known liar who was nominated and who has repeatedly -- this White male -- distorted facts about incidents involving the Black community.  So I was especially glad that he and his partner lost.  But I was watching 20 Feet from Stardom again because it's now on Netflix and I was bothered by a number of issues.

Ava: Which is how we come to this roundtable which is composed of  The Third Estate Sunday Review's   Ty,   and me;  Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude; Betty of Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man; C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review; Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills);   Stan of Oh Boy It Never Ends; Isaiah of The World Today Just Nuts and Ann of Ann's Mega Dub.  The film is supposed to be about back up singers but it's really more narrow than that.  Betty?

Betty: Sheryl Crow  started as a backup singer and she appears in the film briefly.  She is White. So was one of Sting's backup singers in the film.   David Lasley is a White and he's a backup singer who was featured. I don't know his work.

C.I.: He's also a songwriter. His most famous song is probably Maxine Nightingale's "Lead Me On" which he wrote with Allee Willis.

Betty: I love that song!  And that goes to a problem I had with the film.  They didn't tell us that.  I didn't know it so I didn't know they didn't tell us that.  But throughout the film, I kept thinking, "Why aren't they telling us anything?"  Darlene Love, they covered.

C.I.: Somewhat.

Betty: But with Darlene we knew she sang lead on some songs that were billed to the Crystals -- a sixties girl group -- a Black group produced by Phil Spector.   Merry Clayton?  Why was she even in the film?  If you can't note the hook she sings on Tori Amos' "Cornflake Girl," why are you even bothering to include her.  I like Merry and I love her singing.  But my point is no context was really provided.

Ann: I believe Betty's talking about when artists were presented that they show up and we get some b.s. on the screen listing five or so acts they did backup vocals for -- not even told it was touring or album work or what.

Betty: Yes, that's what I'm complaining about.

Ann: And that's such a valid point.  And that was true of everyone in the film for the most part.  I mean, Lou Adler produced the Mamas and the Papas among others.  At one point, Merry's walking down a hall and mentions that "Carol" would stick her head out of a studio in this hall and ask her to come sing on a track.  Carole who?  Carole King.  And the tracks were on the best selling Tapestry album -- which Lou Adler produced.  But we're not even told Merry's talking about Carole King, let alone that there really is no "Way Over Yonder" on that album without Merry's vocals.

Isaiah: Merry also provided back up vocals on Carole King's Music album.

Rebecca: And this was needed, this sort of information, in the documentary.  But let's point out that Merry and others in the documentary took part in the 2014 MusicCares awards, they performed.  And the award for person of the year was Carole King who made a point to thank people for their work on Tapestry but did not thank Merry who was sitting there in the audience.

Ava: Carole didn't thank any woman to be clear.  Toni Stern co-wrote "It's Too Late" -- the massive number one single from the album and Carole didn't bother to thank Toni either. This sexism, this refusal to acknowledge female peers is something we noted and addressed in "Carole King's Conditioned Role and Desire (Ava and C.I.)."  We note, for example, that she meets John Lennon and Yoko Ono but can't even bothered with speaking to Yoko.  Or she reduces Carole Bayer Sager to a co-writer of Carole's own bad non-hit "Anyone At All" while refusing to note that Carole Bayer Sager is the gifted co-writer of "That's What Friends Are For," Diana Ross' "It's My Turn," Aretha Franklin's "Ever Changing Times," Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better," Rita Coolidge's "I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love," Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald's "On My Own," and so many more including "A Groovy Kind Of Love."But while Carole King gives background on the men in her book, she just tosses the women out and dispenses with them quickly.  I believe we noted she presents Carole Bayer as a friend she co-wrote "Anyone At All" with and never mentions anything Carole Bayer wrote which was a hit or that Bayer is not just a friend she got to write a song with in the 90s but a longterm songwriter whose career dates back to the sixties and whose won numerous awards.

Isaiah: The Grammy, the Golden Globe, the Academy Award.

Kat: The latter for co-writing the theme to Arthur, "Best That You Can Do."  And while Carole Bayer Sager's winning awards for writing for films, Carole King was recording two songs for the cheaply made Care Bears movie.  Carole also didn't thank Joni Mitchell who sings on the Tapestry album.  Let's be clear that she slighted all women in her acceptance speech the same way she did in her book.

Ty: One of the things that I didn't like was the ahistorical nonsense.  The director makes Darlene Love the heart of the film and to do so he hypes her like crazy.  In 1958, Darlene joins The Blossoms and the film tells you they are new, there is nothing like them, they change music.  Prior to this, the film insists, there were only White backup singers.  That damn lie is obviously untrue.  But let's pretend the White film maker is attempting to say the pop charts only had White backup singers.  Prior to 1958?  We're not going to do a huge fact check, we're just going to note Ray Charles and The Raelettes.  Ray forms the Raelettes in 1956. The Raelettes predate the Blossoms and are better known.  Over the years, this group of singers will include Mable John -- who does briefly appear in the documentary, Minnie Riperton and Merry Clayton among others.

Ann: And on that topic, White back up singers, they were dismissed so rudely.  First off, you're talking about a different genre and a different time.  To ridicule them for being able to read music?  How shameful and that nonsense came from White idiots like Bruce Springsteen.

Kat: What the f**k was Bruce doing in the film?  His knowledge of backup singers is limited to cheating on his first wife by sleeping with one and then marrying her.  Bruce is so stupid throughout the film.  He insists he wanted the Phil Spector sound early on but later realized it was about youth -- the sound required youth.  What a stupid ass.  Does he not know the age of the session musicians on, for example, "Spanish Harlem"?  What a damn fool.

Ty: And he and others stated repeatedly that back up singing was the church, was the Black church.  No, it wasn't.  Motown, more than any other label, utilized lead and backing vocals.  Mary Wilson has long stated how offensive it was to her when 'critics' would say Diana Ross and the Supremes needed to "get back to the church" like Aretha when their singing wasn't rooted in the church.  Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops, etc, they weren't rooted in church vocals.  There's nothing wrong with church vocals.  But stop pretending that African-Americans sing like they're in the church.  Dionne Warwick never has.

Rebecca: I think a theme can emerge, one that the film ignores, in that the mid-to-late 60s finds a number of British White performers using African-Americans to appear soulful and to get a 'church sound.'

Isaiah: Not only would I agree with that, I think you can make a similar argument of use about the director of this documentary.  And I want to be on record stating that Bruce Springsteen's remarks were both idiotic and borderline racist -- and I'm being kind and saying "borderline."

Betty: I found his racist and offensive.  He needed to shut his damn mouth.  Sting was one.  Sting spoke of the backup singer and didn't try to deliver a history lesson or speak for Black America.  Bette Midler spoke about backup vocalists.  I didn't mind that at all.  Unlike Bruce, Bette's known for her work with backup singers.  That alone gave her standing to speak.  The fact that her remarks were also intelligent was an added bonus.

Stan: I would agree with that 100%.  She really was the only 'star' artist featured who knew what she was talking about.

C.I.: What about Patti Austin?

Stan: See that goes to the issue about the film failing to identify people.  I don't really consider Patti a backup singer.  She's done that but she's also had hits and she's moved over to jazz where she's found real glory.  I felt the film was better when she spoke but I don't think most people watching knew who she was because the film failed to provide her background -- there was no, "She hit number one with 'Baby Come To Me,' she won a Grammy in 2008 for one of her jazz albums . . ."  It was just, "Here's Patti Austin."

Rebecca: For a documentary allegedly about women, there was way too much worship by the director of men.

Isaiah: I would agree with that.  And ask: Who the hell is Claudia Lennear?  Oh, she was an Ikette?  Okay.  So she was used to provide church and soul?  To Tina Turner?  What nonsense.  The film was more interested in telling you she slept with Mick Jagger, that she's supposedly the inspiration for the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and that she posed for Playboy.  Why the f**k am I supposed to care about any of that?

Ty: I found the film insulting and a White rescue attempt.  It reminds me of the idiots who whine about Florence Ballard and how Berry Gordy made Diana Ross the lead singer of the Supremes.  Flo had a powerful voice.  It just wasn't marketable because it was the generic powerful voice.  Sorry ladies in the film, but that applies to some of you as well.  Diana had a unique sound and that's what Berry picked up on.  There's this notion that anyone could have been a star when it requires a lot of work and a lot of luck.

Betty: Right.  In noting the hits that Carole Bayer Sager had co-written, Ava mentioned Rita Coolidge.  Rita was a backup singer.  That's how she got her start.  The film seemed unwilling to note that you could and many did crossover.  That also includes Minnie Riperton whose famous forever for her hit "Loving You."  Did Darlene have a hit making voice?  In the sixties, yes.  But that same voice as an adult solo artist?  I don't think so.  She sings like a little girl -- in terms of range and the purity of the notes.  Judy Garland did as well but Judy never dominated the pop singles chart -- not even in the pre-rock and roll era.  There is nothing, for example, sensual about Darlene's voice.  I can remember hearing her version of "Love On The Rooftop," for example, and thinking, "Eh."  Then hearing Cher sing it and thinking, "That's a song."  Now Darlene's a great back up singer and a great oldies artist but let's not pretend that she had the maturity to move beyond it -- vocally had the maturity.

Kat: And, if we're naming women who were backup singers, Cher was a backup singer on most of Phil Spector's big hits in the sixties -- including "You've Lost That Loving Feeling."  A fact that the movie ignores as it rushes to insist that Darlene and the Blossoms were the backup singers for Phil.  Yes, they were on many songs but they weren't the only ones.

Ann: Merry Clayton going on Soul Train to perform Neil Young's "Southern Man" was an embarrassment.  What label, what sane label, would let her go out looking like that.  The hair was embarrassing.  A really weak attempt at a fro.  The blue jeans were awful and made her ass look flat.  The t-shirt was just an embarrassment and made it look like she was about to clean the attic, not go out on stage and entertain.

Stan: I didn't see any serious evaluation of that.  I saw a lot of 'we was robbed!'  Well you kind of robbed yourself in many cases.

Ava: C.I.?

C.I.: Well there are numerous opinions in this roundtable and that goes to the fact that what makes a recording star is so vague and so happenstance.  Luck can't be underestimated.  But, to the Ikettes, why would you do this film and not note PP Arnold.  Now she's a friend so I'm going to include her and maybe I'm biased out of friendship.  But PP is your counter-argument to Darlene Love or any other woman in the film.  She was singing back up with the Ikettes, they go to England to tour with the Stones in 1966 and PP decides to go solo.  And she has a series of hits initially and racks up a hit about every 12 or so years after her initial run.  That's a career. A solo artist career.  Pat has much to be proud of and if you're doing a film on the topic the documentary focused on, I don't know why you would present Darlene Love as the centerpiece to make an argument that PP Arnold's career refutes.
And that's not to insult Darlene or take anything away from her but to note the director made a victims' film.

Stan: I would so agree with that.  And Betty's right about Darlene's voice.  It's powerful, it's in tune but it really is more of a juvenile's voice.  Ronnie Spector had a more limited range but her voice is a star's voice -- and as the lead singer of the Ronnettes, she sang many hits.  It's not noted in the film that Darlene's been kind of bitchy about Ronnie over the years in interviews -- insulting Ronnie's singing, for example, putting it down.  I would guess that would also hurt the way people see you. I don't think Darlene's necessarily a bad person, I just didn't like the documentary zooming in on her and presenting a lot of hype where reality was needed.

Kat: And Ronnie, like Diana Ross, has a commercial voice.  In popular music, what makes a hit recording artist is not necessarily a two octave range, etc.  You have to have personality in your voice itself.  Barry Manilow, for example, has personality.  I'm not a huge fan of his but I will note that his voice is distinct and like no other.

Isaiah: And I'd like to point out that Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder knew what they were talking about and more footage of both should have been featured.

Ava: As we wind down, let me note that Darlene's also insulted Vikki Carr over the years and Carr's version of "He's A Rebel."  That's the only reason Phil recorded Darlene doing the song, Carr's version was about to come out and he wanted to beat it.  But Darlene's made insulting remarks about Carr's singing over the years indicating Carr is bland and white bread and blah blah.  Vikki Carr's real name is Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona and she was born in El Paso, Texas.  Sometimes Darlene Love's a little stupid  And sometimes so is 20 Feet from Stardom.  The five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature this year are Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky's Citizen Four, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel's Finding Vivian Maier, Rory Kennedy and Kevin McAlester's Last Days in Vietnam, Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier's The Salt of the Earth and Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara's Virunga. This is a rush transcript.

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