Changing Tastes and Film Formats

Darlene Love
The woman in the photograph is Darlene Love. I didn’t know her name or recognize her distinctive voice even though she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Who is she and why didn’t I know her?

Darlene was primarily a back up singer and she; along with Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton and Judith Hill are the subjects of 20 Feet From Stardom, a must-see documentary now showing in theaters across the country.

These women are extraordinary and have extraordinary voices. They have all tried solo careers but failed to crack the barrier that separates stars from other talented artists. Merry and Lisa have both worked extensively with the Rolling Stones. Merry sings the duet on Gimme Shelter with Mick Jagger and Lisa, reputed to be the inspiration for Brown Sugar, has been the lead backup singer for every Rolling Stone record and tour since 1989.

These women have also worked with Bruce Springsteen, Luther Vandeross, Phil Spector, Ike and Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and more than once their studio work was misrepresented as the work of the more famous performer whose name was on the album.

This music and these voices are astonishing and I walked out of the theater last weekend thinking I’d like to go back and sit through it again. I might do it this weekend. Except…

Air Twyla

Tonight we’re going to see a new documentary about J.D. Salinger, Saturday we’re going to see and hear Twyla Tharp collaborate with R&B legend Allen Toussaint on Air Twyla at PNB, and Sunday we have tickets to see Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality for All. There is so much going on that there isn’t much time to work with.

Robert Reich

The personal computer, YouTube, cable TV, smartphones, and tablets have created a sea change in the way content is delivered and received, whether it’s music, film, news, or art. Included in the sea change is the ascendency of the documentary film as a main event in first run theaters. In June I blogged about two documentaries – Venus and Serena about the Williams sisters, and Anita, a film about Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas nomination fight. Earlier I wrote about Searching for Sugar Man, the surprising story of Rodriquez, the Detroit musician who unknowingly provided the soundtrack for the apartheid struggle in South Africa.

In the past documentary films were shown, if at all, on PBS or weekends on CNN. Rarely were they seen in first run theaters. Now, they are being distributed and marketed by the likes of the Weinstein Company and competing with blockbusters like Iron Man and The Avengers. With documentary films we have an opportunity to see subjects explored in depth as an alternative to a diet of exploding aliens and car chases. These non-fiction films are informative and educational as well as good entertainment, but they can also be propaganda pieces like Dinesh D’Souza’s election cycle film 2016 that purported to show President Obama’s hidden Muslim agenda. In any event, documentary films have become frontline news and entertainment. Their ascendancy and importance reminds me of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I wonder if discerning people who now go there for real news in a satirical format without the mean spirited puffery of Fox or MSNBC wouldn’t rather have mainstream news that they trusted?

I live in a target rich environment for art, music, and film. It’s a great place to be, and now that summer is over local screens, music venues and galleries are filling with new and interesting work. I find myself increasingly drawn to the raft of non-fiction films that is flooding the mainstream. Salinger is getting the most publicity because of its subject’s obsession with privacy but Robert Reich’s film is getting a lot of hype too. There’s also one on the music scene in Muscle Shoals that celebrates Rick Hall the founder of FAME Studios where Aretha, the Stones, the Allman Brothers, Bono, Percy Sledge and others were backed by the remarkable studio musicians who created the famous Muscle Shoals sound.

I could go on and on about documentaries. If you’re interested there is a website devoted to top documentaries where you can watch them in their entirety. It’s a very deep well:

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