Saturday, August 24, 2013


Alternate Title:  Sociology 101:  The White Man as Satan

One sentence synopsis:    A blue-collar worker dying from an industrial accident must find a way onto the exclusive orbital habitat of Elysium to access the life-saving technology there.

Things Havoc liked:  I've never been the biggest fan of Matt Damon, despite the good movies I keep seeing him in. Simply put, he always seems to play Matt Damon, regardless of the circumstance or role, and while there are times his witty-loser schtick works (Adjustment Bureau comes to mind), it doesn't exactly provide new and refreshing ideas week in and week out. Still, I'm willing to give Damon a shot, as he has an even chance of being good in anything he does, and several of his films have been pleasant surprises in this experiment of mine (once more, I cite Adjustment Bureau). In Elysium, Damon plays Max Da Costa, a former car thief and factory worker who, through a series of plot reasons, finds he needs to access the miraculous healing facilities available on the offworld enclave of Elysium, an obvious stand-in for the first world relative to the third. Damon doesn't do a vast amount with his character beyond brooding monotone, but his performance never dips below adequate. He is not the problem with this movie.

Neill Blomkamp, the South African director of District Nine, clearly has an obsession with the immigration debate. But ignoring that, his preferred visual style, that of rusted, lived-in supertechnology, is a welcome one in a world where Michael Bay and his clones dominate the surface of Hollywood. His Cinema Verite style is an acquired taste, but if nothing else it lends a wonderful continuity to the rusty, dirty, overcrowded world that he is attempting to portray here. Shot on location in one of the poorest slums in Mexico, the movie certainly feels real, even when flying cars are passing overhead or futuristic weapons and shields are being employed. The super-technology available to our poor heroes looks cobbled-together out of recognizable spare parts, in some cases literally duct-taped to one another. Following movie after movie in which supertech is considered so ubiquitous as to require no explanation, it's actually kind of refreshing to see our futuristic hero desperately trying to blow the dust off his vintage laptop, while his buddy covers him with what appears to be an AK-47 taped to a grenade launcher, all without consciously going for a post-apocalyptic vibe. The style is not the problem with this movie.

Things Havoc disliked:  No, the problem with this movie is every other goddamn thing.

Elysium is a stupefyingly bad film, a film so terrible that it flies right past outrage and into wonder and awe at the sheer achievement of having created such an atrocity. Following the surprise success of District 9, a film I enjoyed, Blomkamp had what amounted to carte blanche to pick his next project, and this movie, like so many other epochal disasters (Heaven's Gate, Connie & Carla) proves just why that practice, while inevitable, is rarely a good idea. Nothing works in this movie, not the acting, not the cinematography, not the premise, not the plot, not the ham-fisted political commentary, not the racist color-coding, not a goddamn thing at all. And having written, produced, and directed the film (not to mention run his mouth about its virtues at length), Blomkamp has left us with absolutely nobody else to blame.

One scarcely knows where to begin with a disaster of this magnitude, and so let us fly directly to the crux of the matter. Elysium is intended (Blomkamp has made that explicitly clear) as a parable for the immigration debate in the United States, in that it pits the overwhelmingly Hispanic inhabitants of Earth against the overwhelmingly White inhabitants of Elysium, and then frames their relationship as one of exploited and exploiter. I have no problem with this concept in theory. Science fiction has been used as parable for the debates of the day since as far back as Jack London and HG Wells, and there is plenty to criticize about American immigration policy. What I object to is how thunderously the film jackhammers its message home. It is not enough for the residents of Elysium to be uncaring about the plight of those left behind on Earth, they must demand that Earther-dwellers stop breathing in their presence and callously slaughter them with missiles when they attempt to break into Elysium. It is not enough for Elysium security to tase, shoot, and beat people as they try desperately to reach Elysium, they must throw children into livestock cages and engage in summary executions on people's lawns as a matter of policy. It is not enough for Elysium to have life-saving medical technology unavailable on Earth, the movie must go out of its way to show that this technology is unlimited and free of use, that dispensaries for it sit by the hundreds in warehouses on Elysium, unused, and that there is literally no reason why this technology is denied to the sick on Earth other than the fact that all white people are evil.

Oh you think I'm joking? This movie is so color-coded, at one point I thought we'd slipped into Birth of a Nation. There are a good thirty or forty characters in this film, counting the bit parts, and without exception, every single white character, be they Earther or Elysiumite, is an evil, murderous, psychotic killer who not only oppress everyone else but actively go out of their way to do so in the most horrific fashion possible. Meanwhile every character who is not white, including violent gang leaders, criminals, and organized crime bosses, are kind-hearted altruists desperately trying to do right whatever the cost, sacrificing themselves on the slimmest of hopes to bring salvation to their poor, benighted brethren. After a hundred plus reviews, I believe I am on safe ground when I say that I have no problem with either evil, slimy corporate types, nor with gangsters with hearts of gold, but the racial profiling of this film is so blatant as to bring to mind some inverted version of those Stormfront recruitment films that portray minorities as an evil, collective tide of mongrolism out to defile virtuous white womanhood. And lest someone retort that Matt Damon, who is white, does not conform to this categorization, I'll simply mention that the movie takes great pains to ensure we know he was orphaned at a young age and raised by Hispanic nuns at a Hispanic orphanage, and that therefore his evil "whiteness" has been purged from him.

But even if we leave aside all of the polemic and all of the ham-fisted politics that are packed into this film, the movie is simply incompetently made on the most basic levels. Action sequences are slow and plodding, and rely on heavy usage of the dreaded shakey-cam, predictably ensuring that the audience can actually see none of the elaborate action and special effects that the filmmakers presumably spent so much time and money producing. The plot, taken on its own, makes no goddamn sense, relying as it does on a series of coincidences so absurd as to beggar belief. Our heroes just happen to select as their primary agent a man who just happens to have it out for a specific CEO who just happens to be involved in a society-shattering conspiracy with the evil defense minister of Elysium, the vital information for which he just happens to be carrying at the exact moment the heroes put their plan into action. Meanwhile, the robotic exoskeleton that Matt Damon is screwed (literally) into, the one that the trailers made such a big deal about, is such an afterthought in the film that I literally could not tell what the point of it was in the first place. Yes, Damon uses it a few times to perform feats of abnormal strength, but the vast majority of the combat takes place via gun or sword, neither of which the exoskeleton assists with, and Damon's body is so ravaged by radiation and injury that he never gets the signature "cool" moments that we were assured would attend such a momentous thing. The obligatory love interest (Alice Braga) plays no role in the film except to be menaced by the psychotic madman and saved by the virtuous hero, while her sick daughter (Emma Tremblay) manages to actually stand out as the worst child-performance I've seen in years, and I remember The Odd Life of Timothy Green just as vividly as I ever did. Her spontaneous decision to recite a children's tale laced with (say it with me) deep meaning to Damon will live on in my memory as a particular example of terrible execution of a terrible idea.

Final thoughts:   At the end of this movie (spoiler alert), when our heroes have reprogrammed Elysium's central mainframe to recognize all of Earth's denizens as citizens of the enclave, a mighty fleet of magic healing-tech-equipped ambulance shuttles disembarks from Elysium under automated control, and descends upon the earth, bearing hundreds and thousands of healing machines to cure the world of its ills. What the filmmaker seems to have forgotten, however, is that this means the people of Elysium constructed a vast fleet of magic ambulances capable of curing all illness and injury upon the planet, a fleet for which they themselves had no conceivable use (every home in Elysium has one of these magic healing beds in the front parlor), and then placed them, unused, in garages and kept them from the needy people of Earth for no reason except evil. Blomkamp has gone on record as declaring that his film is not science fiction, but "Today. Now." Accordingly, I am left with the conclusion that according to Blomkamp, the immigration debate consists of a handful of psychopathic evil white people who deny life-giving resources that exist in unlimited quantities to the virtuous and deserving people of the rest of the world for no reason. I'm no fan of US immigration policy, but permit me the indulgence of suggesting that the actual debate is a little more nuanced than that.

Yes, parable is a thing. Yes, exaggerating a problem so as to draw attention to it has a long and rich history. But there is a massive difference between exaggerating an existing problem and distorting it beyond all recognition while simplifying the causes and solutions of it down to "if only the white people weren't all so evil". Of course, Blomkamp's pedigree and the politically-correct target he chooses to demonize have earned him a free pass from most of the mainstream critics I consulted prior to writing this review, as the consensus seems to be that the "rightness" of Blomkamp's cause excuse all of the lies, vilifications, and general incompetence of the film itself. They can do as they would, but it has never been my policy to give films free passes for merely having taken my side on a contentious issue. Elysium is an unmitigated disaster on nearly every level, one which, were the group being targeted anyone else, would certainly destroy the career of the man responsible. And Blomkamp's earnestness does not excuse either his incompetence nor his manifest ignorance of a subject he has the unabashed gall to presume he has "addressed" in some holistic manner.

I complained to a friend of mine recently that this year's crop of movies were a dull and mediocre lot compared to last year's, having offered neither spectacular films of staggering genius, nor truly epochal disasters of cataclysmic proportions. So much for that.

Final Score:  2.5/10

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Kick Ass 2

Alternate Title:  Tipper Gore's Recurring Nightmare

One sentence synopsis:   Kick Ass and Hit Girl try to reconcile their lives as superheroes with their lives as High Schoolers, while confronting the menace of the Motherfucker and his army of legbreakers.

Things Havoc liked:  Mark Millar's Kick Ass, a comic about a teenaged comic book fan who decides to become a real-life superhero, is a noxious, mean-spirited slap at everyone who ever liked comic books or indulged in escapism, brought to us by one of the most despicable hypocrites working in comics today, and I'll remind you that this is an industry that employs Joe Qaesada, Frank Miller, and Rob Leifeld. And yet, the 2010 movie version of Kick-Ass, written and directed by X-men First Class' Matthew Vaughn, was a triumph on almost every level, a masterpiece that effortlessly overcame what flaws it inherited by replacing Millar's smug contempt for his audience, industry, and career, with a self-aware nod to everything both absurd and endearing about comic book power fantasies. One of the finest movies I saw in the entire decade of the 2000s, Kick-Ass was almost a rebuttal to its own source material, and I, for one, was on board. It was irreverent, it was violent, it was hilarious, it was goofy, it was touching, it was masterfully-crafted, it was everything that the films that tried to ape it (Super, Defendor) were not, simultaneously a parody of and an ode to Superheroes as a concept. And so it is that we find ourselves, three years later, facing Kick Ass 2, wondering if lightning can strike twice.

Kick Ass had so many strengths, that to list them here would take all day, but among them were excellent actors, a wonderful score, and a brilliant script that juggled ultra-violence, camp, and realism, all without dropping any of them. With almost every major character (save the dead ones) returning, it should be no surprise that the first of these categories remains just as good in the sequel. Many people did not like Aaron Johnson in the original film (one reviewer called him 'devoid of charisma'), but I thought his performance was excellent then, and excellent now. Teenagers, even ones with the balls to do what he does, are not known for over-emoting every time they step outside, and his highly-realistic portrayal of a situation that was farcical when it wasn't horrifying, anchors both films very effectively, grounding us in a real world rather than some Wagnerian hero-opera such as Thor. Another criticism leveled at him was that Chloe Moretz, as Hit Girl, blew him off the screen, which to be honest was true, and remains true here, not that I'm complaining. No longer the pint-sized murder-machine of three years before, Moretz' Hit Girl is now a teenager, and much of the film consists of exploring just what that means to a girl whose early childhood was spent slaughtering drug dealers with a halberd. I've become an unrepentant fan of Moretz' since the original Kick Ass, and she doesn't disappoint here. Her stuntwork is still superb, and unlike in the previous film, she is given the chance to act with a bigger range than "whispering badass" or "girly assassin". It should be no surprise that she pulls it off.

But it's Christopher Plasse, formerly Red Mist, now an insane, revenge-obsessed would-be supervillain named "The Motherfucker", who steals this round. His character has gone completely round the bend, raving and snarling and inhaling scenery like it holds the cure for something, and yet Plasse adds just a few touches, here and there, of the dweeby nerd that he was in the original film, relying on his money to force people to take seriously what they would otherwise laugh out the door. Every scene Plasse is in is awesome and hilarious, as he undergoes a series of psychotic breaks that lead him further and further into comic-book-villain levels of insanity. What would be absurd in any other film is practically required here, but unlike in Millar's version, he never goes so far as to become a parody of evil (or worse yet, a stand-in for what Millar thinks of his fans). A few wonderful winks at Millar's original script, and the truly horrific elements that were cut for tone here, stand out all the brighter if you know where this character originally went.

New to the films is Jim Carrey, playing Colonel Stars & Stripes, a former mafia enforcer-turned Born-Again Christian who organizes a superhero team with Kick Ass and a host of other would-be heroes. It would have been so easy to turn Carrey's character into a raving psychopath ala Roarshach, but the movie actually has the balls to play him straight, a man who, for whatever reason, has decided to live as a hero in every sense of the word. He beats (and mauls) human traffickers and rapists, yet leads his team to help out at soup kitchens, escort inebriated college co-eds home safely, and otherwise simply improve the lives of those around them. No other film would have the guts to play this character straight, for fear of appearing way too saccharine and idealistic, yet the filmmakers here know that this is Kick Ass, an orgiastic bloodfest of impeccable credentials, and that they can therefore do what nobody else could. John Leguizamo, meanwhile, plays Javier, Motherfucker's butler and personal assistant, and like Carrey, plays it completely straight, almost Alfred-like, despite the fact that his ward is not Batman, but a raving lunatic. Rounding out the cast are Scrubs' Donald Faison as Doctor Gravity, another one of Kick Ass' team who gets little material but does excellent things with what he gets, and Russian bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina as Mother Russia, a former KGB killer hired by Motherfucker to kick-start his reign of terror. Kurkulina is amazing in this film, a force of nature so gargantuan and imposing that it's hard to imagine she's not CGI. Her battles with the police and later Hit Girl are the stuff of dreams.

Kick-Ass 2's score, by returning music composer Henry Jackman, picks up where the last one left off, using the same leitmotifs stolen from Clint Mansel (not that I object). The score is more restrained this time around, more in the vein of a traditional action-comedy than Kick Ass was, but the music is still uniformly excellent, so who's complaining? Thematically, the film branches out a bit, covering both Kick-Ass' response to the escalation of the stakes in the war between him and the Motherfucker, and Hit Girl's efforts to find a normal life for herself at the cusp of high school. As the former thread plays out approximately the way it did in the first film, the latter is the really new addition here, supplying Hit-Girl with a trio of Mean Girls-inspired cheerleader types whom she tries to use to integrate into normal life. This is not the terrible idea that the synopsis sounds like, and the resolution for it is one of the most hilarious (and disgusting) things in a film well supplied with both.

Things Havoc disliked:  I really cannot speak highly enough of the original Kick Ass, and I fear that fact is tainting both my reaction to the film, and that of others (more on them in a minute). Kick Ass was a remarkable film in a whole number of ways, one that simply felt different than anything around it. And perhaps it's because we're no longer in 2010, or perhaps it's the change in directors and writers, but Kick Ass 2... just isn't.

The pieces are all here, the cast and the concept and everything else that made Kick Ass so awesome, and yet the whole movie doesn't connect as strongly as the original did, in basically any way. Though the action scenes are decent enough, the cinematography has taken a big step downwards, to the point where shakey-cam has begun to rear its ugly head again, spoiling, as usual, all of the hard work that goes into whatever scene they've engaged in. But beyond that, the action sequences just lack the explosive punch that they did in the first one. There is nothing in the film to match the jaw-dropping splendor of the strobe-lit warehouse fight scene from Kick Ass, nor the sheer manic absurdity of Hit Girl's corridor fight from the first movie. Several scenes seem to want to recapture the magic of the originals (quite visibly in fact), but the shot selection, and frankly, the writing, is just not up to par. Hit Girl's one-liners feel more stale than they used to, and while Moretz is as badass as ever, there's just an unavoidable sense that we're watching the low-rent version of Hit Girl's antics.

This, effectively, is the issue with the entire film. Nothing is particularly wrong with the movie, and yet there are cracks in the facade that the original papered over with skill and awesomeness. The new characters, several of whom are truly amazing, do not receive the same level of introduction that Hit Girl and Big Daddy did in the original, something which particularly harms the ones that are not so amazing. Kick Ass' new love interest, another would-be superhero called Night Bitch, is completely undeveloped, used for nothing but to generate some cheap heat for our villains, who truly do not require it, given the lengths they're already going to. Mother Russia is amazing, but the remaining supervillains from Motherfucker's army (the Toxic Mega-Cunts. Yeah, you heard me.) are completely one-note, or more accurately half-note, given a couple of lines of introduction and then effectively discarded until it's time for them to serve as punching bags for our heroes. Perhaps this is a product of the wider scope of the film, which has to juggle Hit Girl, Kick Ass, and Motherfucker's stories, none of which have a lot to do with one another until the end of the film. As a result, the movie has to gloss over elements that, in the original film, were given front-and-center treatment. There are no scenes, for instance, to compare with those of Hit Girl and Big Daddy simply sitting around and talking, partly because there is no Big Daddy in the film, but mostly because there is simply no time, something I don't understand at all, given the sub-two-hour runtime of this movie.

Final thoughts:   This movie was not well received, not by the mainstream critics, nor by those in the nerd community who lauded the original. Some of this is the inevitable disappointment when a movie does not live up to its illustrious ancestor, but I won't deny there are some fair points among those who have declared Kick Ass 2 to "suck". But that said, the mere fact that Kick Ass 2 is not the equal of the first one does not make it a bad film, and I will be damned if I didn't laugh my head off all the way through it. No, the magic of Kick Ass is not intact in this version, but bereft of that magic, we are left with a film that is flawed but still perfectly serviceable, not the equal of its parent, but worthy in its own right. Ultimately, all I can really report on is that, whether because of this movie's inherent qualities, the sheer strength of the underlying premise and characters, or some lingering, misguided sympathy for the original (I acknowledge the possibility), I heartily enjoyed the experience of watching Kick Ass 2, and fervently hope that it does well enough to warrant a third film.

And frankly, so long as that's the case, what more is there to say?

Final Score:  7/10

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Wolverine

Alternate Title:  Adequate at What he Does

One sentence synopsis:   Wolverine travels to Japan and becomes embroiled in a plot to steal his powers of regeneration.

Things Havoc liked:  I must confess, I never really understood all of the hate that X-men 3 received. No, it wasn't as good as the other X-men films, being both sloppily put together and involving several baffling decisions, and yet for all the sound and fury, I merely thought the movie was "okay", not great certainly, and no equal to the other fantastic movies (to say nothing of First Class), but hardly a disaster on the level of Origins. As such, while the aforementioned Origins was a titanic piece of crap, I had some hopes going into this movie that it might not suck. For one thing, the posters (yes, the posters) were astonishingly good, presenting Wolverine and other characters from the movie done up in Japanese brush-stroke style, with no explanation offered. For another thing, I simply like Hugh Jakcman as Wolverine, and always have, and for a third, this movie, unlike the last one, is actually based around a major arc from the original comics.

The arc in question is Chris Claremont and pre-insanity Frank Miller's 1982 take on the character titled simply "Wolverine", one of the best regarded in the character's history, that re-imagines the archetypical lone badass into a setting and role suited perfectly for him, that of a Japanese samurai. Why this is so is somewhat difficult to explain, particularly to those who see one comic book movie as much like another, but Wolverine as a character has always been rather difficult for some fans of the genre to take seriously. A morose, brooding badass gets tiresome quickly when all he is allowed to do is act like an asshole and otherwise smash people. This is why the best X-men movies involving Wolverine paired him up with such people as Rogue (in X-men 1), or explored his origin story in a way that gave him hard decisions to make (in X-men 2), playing down the gruff loner in favor of factors that would stretch the character. It should therefore be no surprise that the best parts of this movie are those where Wolverine dials the persona back in favor of more personal material, particularly an extended sequence in the middle of the film where (for plot reasons) the movie pulls out all the action, all the heroics, and even all the superpowers, in favor of just Wolverine and a woman named Mariko whom he winds up protecting almost accidentally. There's nothing particularly innovative about these scenes, but they're actually done surprisingly well, like something from a particularly good romantic-action film.

Frankly, when the movie is working, the above could be said over and over again. The early sequences, where Wolverine is plunged into a strange, byzantine world of complex politics and traditions he does not understand has been done before, but that doesn't make it any less effective, with a particularly good idea being the unsubtitled Japanese that most of the people around Wolverine are speaking. Action sequences in this film are not quite as spectacular as some, but that tends to help the film, grounding it in a bit more of a realistic context. One particularly good sequence on the roof of a bullet train actually provides Wolverine with nothing to fight beyond a pack of Yakuza thugs, and still manages to be reasonably tense (and fairly badass), as these sorts of things go.

Things Havoc disliked:  But all of the above only applies when the movie is working. And when it is not...

We'll forget the plot, which is insane and needlessly complicated, involving triple-switches and a badly telegraphed main villain who exists solely to provide an excuse for one of the stupidest looking interpretations of a villain I've seen since last year's Lizard, and just cut straight to the problem. The Wolverine is boring. And it is boring not because there is insufficient action, but because the action, like most of the characters and a large chunk of the plot is without purpose.

Consider Yukio, a female ninja from the original comics, who in this film has undergone a terrible anime-inspired re-invention that turns her into a pink-haired schoolgirl-uniform-wearing swordmaster who looks all of nineteen and yet who can, on multiple occasions, effortlessly defeat machine-gun-wielding triad gangsters with a large stick. This is stupid, and yet I would not have minded so much, if the movie had given her character some depth, or even a consistent motivation. She is effectively the adopted sister of Mariko, the woman Wolverine must protect, fine, but at times her actions seem motivated by some unrequited devotion to Wolverine himself, whether romantic or platonic, I can't even tell. If the film had just bothered to pick something with her and stick with it, I could have accepted it. Witty banter in the style of a buddy cop film between Wolverine and a pint-sized ninja is the sort of thing I would love to watch, regardless of how stupid it is empirically. But instead I have no idea what the film was going for with Yukio, beyond (and I fear this is the correct answer), "nerds like anime, right?"

Similarly, one of the several villains this movie sports is a marvel villain by the name of Viper, a mutant with powers over poisons and alchemical chemistry, who early on manages to suppress Wolverine's mutant healing powers (not a bad idea). Unfortunately, despite getting a large chunk of screentime, Viper is completely one-note, playing up the "ha ha ha look how much smarter than you I am" routine, even when dealing with a character she has never met before and has no reason to actually hate. Or what am I to make of Harada, a childhood friend of Mariko's and a character of some awesomeness in his own right in the comics, who in this film switches sides no fewer than five times, not once developing anything that could impersonate a motivation? By the end of the movie, when he selflessly leaps into action in defense of a man who just stabbed him against a horde of ninjas he previously commanded and a giant robot samurai with a sword made of fire, we have no idea why.

Oh, and speaking of giant robot samurais with swords made of fire, that is stupid. I know it doesn't sound like it in text, but the robot samurai exists for no reason whatsoever. I'd call it shoehorned in if there was even a shoehorn in play. As it stands, the film simply says "welp, here's a giant robot" because nerds also like those (insert Pacific Rim joke here). The robot isn't even the problem, the problem is that no element of this film exists for any reason other than the fact that the filmmakers thought it should be in the movie. For example, if you were an indestructable killing machine with claws of unbreakable steel in your hands, and ninjas fired arrows into you connected to ropes, would you perhaps cut the ropes as you made your way towards your goal? Or would you ignore them, struggling vainly onward as more and more ropes snared you, only so that you could fall dramatically to your knees in a cruciform pose while pathos-laden music played in the background? I recognize that on some level, every superhero in film is required to become Jesus once in a while (or in this case, St. Sebastian), but most of them don't go looking for opportunities to do so when the tools to avoid being captured are literally in hand.

Final thoughts:   Look, I appreciate the effort here, I really do. And it's true that this film never comes close to the depths that Origins plumbed, but the mere fact that this film is not as bad as that piece of crap does not magically transmute it into a good film. Ultimately, The Wolverine, while not unpleasant to watch, is completely pointless, with no consequences for the characters involved whatsoever beyond a handful of cosmetic alterations. The original comic was about Wolverine leaving his gruff asshole persona behind, immersing himself in a culture that was foreign and yet made complete sense to him, and finding a purpose in his immortal life that had previously eluded him. A film prepared to grow the character in that way would have been awesome (tell me you wouldn't pay to watch The Last Samurai starring Wolverine), but this movie has no ambitions beyond existing and keeping the character in the public eye prior to the big crossover throwdown to come next year.

As with most of Marvel's films, The Wolverine has a mid-credits teaser sequence, setting the wheels in motion for the next film in the series. I like this policy, by and large, but this is the first time I've ever seen the credits teaser also serve as the most exciting and interesting part of the entire movie.

Final Score:  4.5/10

20 Feet From Stardom

Alternate Title:  Singers in the Dark

One sentence synopsis:   Interviewers chronicle the lives and careers of a number of highly accomplished backup singers.

Things Havoc liked:  If you were ever a fan of music from around 1950 to 1990, then chances are you have heard the work of a number of the women in this film, women who are the acknowledged experts and most accomplished performers in the strange, unknown-to-me world of backup singing. Oh I knew what the profession consisted of, like everyone I've seen the women (and men) standing off on the side of the stage, moving in unison and singing choral accompaniments or harmonies with the "main" talent, but I, probably like the majority of you, never quite realized just how much backup singers actually contribute to their songs. Go back and listen to such masterworks as David Bowie's "Young Americans" or the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", and you will find that the backup vocalist serves the way a "featured" or "guest" performer does nowadays, singing nearly half of the lyrics, including most of the ones you actually remember from the songs. "When kids sing along to those songs," says one of these backup singers, "they're singing our part." And often enough they actually are.

20 Feet From Stardom presents the careers of a number of women, particularly Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fisher, all backup vocalists of great stature within their industry, with careers that span four or even five decades. Both through demonstrations of their (flatly incredible) vocal capabilities, and a cavalcade of interviews with established stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, or Mick Jagger, the movie convinces us of their skill, yet the movie is not about the mere fact that these women are not well known, but instead dives into the profession of backup singing as a legitimate, separate profession, equal in difficulty to headlining, and no less important, fulfilling, or renowned. We are shown where backup singers (or at least these backup singers) tend to come from, almost uniformly from gospel singing rooted in old black church music with its line-callback format, and given some idea of just what makes a great backup singer in the first place, the ability to harmonize and adapt one's voice to largely any style or range of music. The skillset, while similar, is not the same as that required for headline or solo singing, and while most of these women are highly proficient singers in their own right, some profess to have no desire to sing by themselves or as the leaders of groups, preferring to sing backup even when offered other chances, and believing their chosen careers to be no less valid or important than those of their leading counterparts.

And what careers they have. 20 feet from Stardom is in many ways a trip back through four decades of music, from the first days of Motown to the climax of the 80s. Merry Clayton, just as an example, sang the backup vocals on everything from Gimme Shelter to Sweet Home Alabama to Feelin' Alright, in between stints with Tom Jones, Bobby Derron, Elvis, Carol King, and of course, becoming a member of Ray Charles' backup group, the Rayettes. Darlene Love, meanwhile, contributed her voice to songs from the Beech Boys, Dionne Warwick, Sonny and Cher, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner (footage of the "Ikettes" dancing in the old Ike and Tina Turner Review is worth the price of admission alone), and on and on and on it goes. Indeed, one of the great astonishments of this movie is just how small a pool major backup singers seem to be drawn from. I'm sure the profession extends well beyond the women presented here, but based on the evidence provided, one good backup singer is able to elevate literally dozens of acts to stardom, and most continue with their starring bands for as long as those bands exist. Lisa Fischer, for instance, has been the Rolling Stones' primary backup singer for twenty-five years. She remains so today.

Of course not every backup singer is content to remain in the shadows. Most made efforts at solo careers here and there, releasing LPs of singles, christmas albums, or even their own work, but almost to a woman, they regard their experience with attempting for stardom negatively. One backup artist, a woman named Tata Vega, explains that her weight (she is a large woman) and image were held against her when center stage in a way they never were bare paces to the side, and all of the women speak of the cutthroat, dirty business that is actual stardom, one that seems to have very little to do with talent and much to do with a willingness to play "the game". Darlene Love, for instance, signed a solo contract with legendary producer and asshole Phil Spector, and then watched in horror as he took songs she recorded and gave them to other groups, piping her voice through the sound system while the designated star lip synched to it. Her efforts to break away from Spector stymied by the incestuous nature of the recording industry, Love simply gave up music for a time, as did many other women whenever the strain of the dirty business that is rock stardom became more than they could bear. Some express regret at having done so. Others say that the experience taught them that they had no real interest in being stars, and preferred their careers as professional backups. After all, says one, more people have heard her voice (given the sheer number of songs she has appeared on) than Elvis.

Things Havoc disliked:  If it sounds as though I've merely been recapping what the movie has to say, rather than offering a criticism of the way it says it so far, there's a reason. The best Documentaries play much like their fictional counterparts, telling a story that is captivating and engaging but simply happens to be true. Last year's incredible Searching for Sugarman is an excellent example of this. 20 Feet From Stardom however seems content simply to drift, haphazardly, from one topic (and one singer) to another, only to double back at seemingly random intervals. We follow Darlene Love's career for a while, then Lisa Fisher's, then back to Love, then someone else, with no real sense of progression or reason to it all. There is no attempt, for instance, to categorize the material by era or genre, showing the evolution of backup singing or how it changed with the different styles of music between the 50s and 80s. We get very little information as to how any of these women got into backup singing, what qualities they had (beyond simply being "good") that allowed them to get those coveted spots behind the Stones or Skynard and not someone else. That the film wishes to draw attention to these women is laudable, but a Documentary exists to inform the audience of a fascinating story, and there is really no story here, other than "these women exist".

Moreover, if there can be said to be a lesson from this movie, it is that backup singing and headline singing are two different disciplines with two different sets of pressures applied, and that the majority of singers cannot transition from one to another, either because they have no interest in doing so, or because the transition is fantastically difficult. I'm prepared to accept that this is indeed true for most, but in actuality there are a large number of leading, major acts in the music business who began their careers as backup singers. Elton John, Phil Collins, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Cher, Pink, Gwen Stefani, all began as backup singers, and all managed to negotiate the transition with apparent success (I am listening to Phil Collins as I write this review). I recognize that these people are exceptional by definition, and that they, unlike the women whose lives are chronicled here, clearly desired careers as music stars above all else. But to simply leave the subject as "the transition cannot be done", as this film does, we are left without any idea of what separated these singers from those, which gives an uncomfortable impression that the filmmakers, having chosen as their subject women who did not become stars, have chosen to pretend that becoming a star is due entirely to politics and backstabbing, and requires no skill at all, only a cutthroat desire to succeed at the expense of others. To an extent, I'm prepared to accept this. But I find it difficult to believe that someone like Whitney Houston owed her solo career to nothing but luck and politics, and not at all to her voice.

Final thoughts:   Ultimately, 20 Feet From Stardom, is not a classic documentary destined to change one's life, but a soft, easy look back at the careers of a number of tremendously talented and accomplished backup singers. The majority of the women in this film are now in their 60s and 70s, and yet to all appearances, they continue to perform with their favorite bands, or for compilation albums and awards shows. One (Love) even found success as a supporting character in the Lethal Weapon movies. The lack of focus and the soft-shoeing of the whole transition question is disappointing, but this film is still worth the watch, particularly if one has any interest at all in how all the music you remember so fondly was put together, and by whom.

Final Score:  6/10

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