Movie Review ~ Lucy and Desi

The Facts:

Synopsis: Explores the unlikely partnership and enduring legacy of one of the most prolific power couples in entertainment history.
Stars: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Laura LaPlaca, Eduardo Machado, Charo, Journey Gunderson, Gregg Oppenheimer, David Daniels, Norman Lear, Desi Arnaz Jr.
Director: Amy Poehler
Rated: PG
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: We’re a little less than a month away from the Academy Awards, and one of the big questions of the night is if Nicole Kidman will win her second Best Actress Oscar for playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.  Inspired by one pivotal week in the life of Ball and her husband, Cuban entertainer Desi Arnaz, on the set of their series I Love Lucy, Aaron Sorkin’s film has been met with various cheers and jeers by fans and casual filmgoers alike. Some think it focuses too much on the showbusiness side and not enough on the personal; others feel the Hawaii-born but Australian-raised Kidman had no business playing the American as apple pie redhead. Yet there’s that notable trend in Hollywood where awards are concerned…they love to pat themselves on the back, and if they have an award in their hand while doing it, all the better.

Whatever the current temperature on Kidman is (Javier Bardem & J.K. Simmons also snagged Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations), there’s a new documentary available on Amazon that might tip the scale one way or another in her direction. Lucy and Desi was directed by comedian Amy Poehler (Moxie) and has been given the blessing of the children of the legendary television stars, with their daughter Lucie playing a prominent role in the movie as a keeper of the keys historian of sorts for her parents. Gaining that advocacy says a lot for a piece that examines the turbulent relationship of the duo who began their careers as individual draws but eventually became synonymous with a picture of domestic life that cast a shadow on the rest of their careers.

With audio recordings made by Ball, who had put the stories and memories down (and then away) for later use, Poehler structures a standard format documentary which only occasionally springboards into tangents the general public may not have been aware of going in. What Lucy and Desi does wonderfully well is take its time focusing not on the wedges that drove the gifted artists apart but what drew them together in the first place and kept them in each other’s lives even after they had divorced. In this film, as in Being the Ricardos, Arnaz is shown to be a keen man of business who tirelessly worked to build a legacy for his family. Arriving from Cuba with nothing (after once being among the wealthiest families), he watched his mother struggle and spent most of his life attempting to recreate their prosperity and gain her approval.

Even if Kidman may not have looked exactly like Ball, the stories told by her daughter and the wealth of footage of public appearances and private home movies show just how well the actress captured Ball’s off-screen presence. The Ball we knew best was the bubbly television housewife always in a jam and involved in a bit of slapstick comedy. In reality, Ball was a force to be reckoned with that wasn’t a natural comic but was highly gifted at it all the same. She had to work and rehearse it, but when she got it, nobody was better because she understood there was an art form to making people laugh. That’s why the show she created with Arnaz has endured for decades.

The documentary loses a bit of its edge when it pulls into the station to talk about the dissolution of the marriage, implying it was more of a personality conflict than anything else. Sorkin’s movie and many reports suggest that Arnaz was a womanizer, but the documentary makes no mention of any extramarital affairs. It’s absolutely within the family’s right not to want to open that door because it is, after all, a private matter that wasn’t in their contract with the public. It does seem odd to not even make a passing reference to it because it is so well known.

Fast-moving and chock full of fun information on Hollywood throughout the decades, I thought Lucy and Desi ended rather abruptly on the heels of a moving passage surrounding the final months of Arnaz’s life. Brought together by their daughter before he passed away, she recounts that time spent together, and that’s when you arrive at seeing these celebrities as people, rather than gawkable movie stars. Punctuated with an emotional kicker you’ll have to see for yourself, before you know it the credits are rolling, and that’s all there is. I could have watched another hour of material but recognize the story Poehler was telling the viewer is about the couple together, not their individual lives apart. That’s another story to recount entirely.

Movie Review ~ The Addams Family 2

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: To reclaim their spooky family bond Morticia and Gomez decide to cram Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester and the crew into their haunted camper and hit the road for one last miserable family vacation. What could possibly go wrong?

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Kroll, Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton, Bette Midler, Wallace Shawn, Snoop Dogg, Bill Hader

Director: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  My my, doesn’t it seem like we were just singing this theme song and snapping our fingers?  It was only two Halloweens ago that the animated reimagining of The Addams Family was released to theaters and even though it took in 100 million at the box office, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a sequel in this fickle market.  However, MGM must have looked at the receipts and their upcoming schedule and figured that it was worth the bet and greenlit the follow-up almost as soon as the original was released.  Good thing they did, too, because now The Addams Family 2 has arrived in time for Halloween 2021 as theaters are opening up more and also releasing this to streaming services so it can be viewed at home as a safe alternative. 

I had my reservations about the first film, having come of age with the live-action films of the early ‘90s starring Raul Julia and Angelica Huston as the dark heads of a strange family of characters.  My overly precious feelings were broken down just a tad by the friendly good-nature vibe created by directors Conrad Vernon (Kung Fun Panda 2) and Greg Tiernan (Sausage Party) and despite some, let’s just say it, ugly animation, it was a mostly harmless exercise in update for generational purposes.  My parents’ generation had their version of the family created by Charles Addams, I had mine, now a new crop could have theirs.

The directors have returned with a sequel that scores higher because it’s less about re-telling an origin story and more about getting into the fun adventure of it all, exploring the dynamics of family (even the kookiest and spookiest) in between wild bits involving tourism throughout the U.S.  Coming out of a summer in which many people re-discovered the simplicity of the road trip, it could very well speak to families that dealt with similar issues of cramped quarters and too much togetherness, while highlighting the overall value of these moments you can never get back if you pass them up.

Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz, Suspiria) is aghast when everyone receives a participation ribbon at the school science fair.  She had, after all, worked hard and believes in rewarding that effort with…some kind of prize.  The sponsor of the competition, Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader, It Chapter Two), agrees and is impressed enough with her invention that swaps human personalities with those of other animals that he asks her to share the creation with him.  She politely declines but it gets her thinking about her place within her own family, leading her into a glum (or glummer) state.  Mother Morticia (Charlize Theron, Bombshell) thinks a road trip that forces them all to spend more time together might break Wednesday out of her funk and encourage more interaction with the rest of the family.

Leaving Grandma (Bette Midler, Hocus Pocus) behind to watch the mansion (she immediately begins planning parties and charging admission), the Addams set off to familiar points of interest on a cross-country journey.  A stop at Niagara Falls means someone is going over in a barrel, then there’s the Alamo, Grand Canyon, etc. etc. all given to some kind of foible, often related to Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll, Vacation).  There’s another reason why Morticia and Gomez (Oscar Isaac, Annihilation) decided to head out of town quickly…but I think I’ll keep that bit of news under wraps and let the viewer find that out on their own.  All I’ll say is that it’s a plot turn and resolution we’ve seen countless times before but given an Addams twist and then another flip for good measure. No points for originality at the outset but I’ll toss some back for having fun.

If the animation has improved greatly from the first film, the voice talent has slipped a notch or two.  Perhaps the voices were done differently than they were previously when all the actors could be in the same room but it has the feeling of no one being in close proximity when they laid down their voice tracks.  Theron sounded sleepy enough in the first film but for the sequel it’s as if she’s at the stage where one eye is completely closed and the other has an eyebrow raised so high to keep the eyelid up just one fraction of an inch.  Someone needs to call Huston and give Theron some pointers – she’s too good an actress to biff this classic vamp of a character.  Moretz seems to be following suit in the snooze-button department.  Even Isaac as the excitable Gomez comes across as lacking that pizzazz that makes the role such a flavor burst for any actor taking it on.  There’s just a curious lack of connection anywhere and for a movie in which the main theme is bonding with one another, it only sticks out more.

Look, these are all things that adults are going to pick up on more than a kid.  In fact, maybe I just need to write a review from a kid’s perspective and call it a day.

I liked The Addams Family 2 because it was funny, colorful, and I ate a handful of candy while I watched it.

Snap Snap. 

Movie Review ~ The Glorias

Available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s itinerant childhood’s influence on her life as a writer, activist and organizer for women’s rights worldwide.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Kimberly Guerrero, Enid Graham

Director: Julie Taymor

Rated: R

Running Length: 147 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  One thing 2020 has definitely needed is more empowerment.  We’ve gone through this year feeling like we’re just behind in a lot of ways, from our health to our control over what happens within our government, even to what goes on in the neighborhoods we want everyone to feel safe in.  No one wants to be at odds with each other (at least I don’t think the majority of us do) and it becomes draining to watch news reports on the great division that appears to be widening between numerous groups that used to be able to find common ground.  The rise of social media and the ability for those that hid in the shadows to now speak their hateful rhetoric from the comfort of their anonymity has only added fuel to that and the spiral just continues downward.

That’s why in some small way a biopic like The Glorias feels like a welcome bit of relief right about now, even though it too focuses on an upward battle for acceptance and understanding in the face of adversity.  While a number of documentaries have been made and work has been written about the activist Gloria Steinem over the years and just in the last decade alone, this is the one that has sprung from her own words and is based on her 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road, written when she was 81.  Adapted by celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl, directed by lauded auteur Julie Taymor, and starring two Oscar winning actresses sharing the role of Steinem at various points in her adult life, on paper The Glorias feels like a project that sounds like an ideal convergence of the right people.  Why, then, does it wind up feeling like a artistically curated Cliff Notes version of a colorful life, only finding some true resonance with its audience in its final half hour?

I honestly doubt a life as large and full as Steinem’s could ever be fully captured in a feature film and to whittle down eight decades into 140-some minutes does seem like a Herculean task, but Ruhl does her best by not taking the traditional biopic route.  This is not a straight-timeline kind of film, but rather one that seems to go from one memory to another, at least at first.  That may be frustrating for audiences that are used to seeing where someone began and watching their life unfold until they wind up in the present (or their version of the present if it’s a person that’s no longer with us) and discover what they learn along the way.  Here, Ruhl and Taymor make use out of the multiple Glorias (Becky’s Lulu Wilson and IT: Chapter Two’s Ryan Kiera Armstrong’s play younger Glorias) to replace others seemingly at will as a way of commenting on what is to come in her life or in service of reflection on her past.  It’s cinematic trickery that works some of the time, mostly when Julianne Moore (Still Alice) as the eldest Gloria subs in for one of her younger counterparts who may not have found her authoritative voice yet but it gets a little showy if a smaller one takes over for an adult.

This narrative alignments also makes it harder to review The Glorias in such a straightforward way.  Taymor and Ruhl jump around through different periods of Steinem’s life with such apparent abandon that it’s a bit of a whirlwind.  One moment we’re with the youngest Gloria (Armstrong) as she dances with her huckster father (a stalwart Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) on the music hall pier he owns before he packs up the family and hits the road in search of another easy money opportunity.  The next thing we know, Taymor has us with ¾ Gloria (Vikander, The Danish Girl) on her travels through India or her early journalist days where she goes undercover working at the Playboy club.  Then we’re back to teenage Gloria (Wilson) caring for her bedridden mother (an excellent Enid Graham) before meeting the Gloria in full bloom Gloria (Moore) as she comes into her own as an activist fighting for the ratification of the ERA, forms Ms. magazine, and in her later years develops a friendship with Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero, A Wrinkle in Time), the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

What I found the most interesting in The Glorias was not the typical biographical data that makes up the usual films of this type.  Steinem’s upbringing, dealing with a dreamer Father that lived in the clouds and a Mother who toiled away making up for his frivolity, doesn’t feel so dissimilar than many that would go on to champion the rights of women who served unnoticed for so long.  Though Steinem had a number of relationships over the years (and was questioned often about them in interviews), the film bypasses any of these tangents in favor of exploring her friendships with other women, including feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe, Harriet), U.S. Representative and a leader of the Women’s Movement Bella Abzug (Bette Midler, Hocus Pocus), and civil rights activist Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).  Those that watched the FX series Mrs. America earlier this summer may be surprised to see how little the ratification of the ERA fits into the film, it’s almost a good thing to have watched that nine-episode series because it gave more context to conversations between Gloria and Bella that those who aren’t as familiar with the movement might feel a bit at sea in.

As she does with all of her projects, Taymor brings a keen eye to The Glorias but occasionally lets her artsy side get the best of her.  This is never more obvious than a misguided sequence where Moore’s Gloria steps in to respond to an interview question on live television and sends the studio into a Wizard of Oz-ish tornado that’s not entirely rendered with the same style or polish as other flights of fancy.  Another animation of the Hindu goddess Kali that becomes the first cover of Ms. magazine feels awkward and a tad childish in the context of what has been a more maturely delivered movie until that point.  Taymor’s blending of dreamy fantasy works best when its done subtly, like when the camera that’s focused on one Gloria will pan back to show another iteration of Steinem gently resting her head on the shoulder of her younger self.  It’s brief specialties like these that Taymor is so adept at that The Glorias needs more of throughout.

Even as it races through the decades, it’s when The Glorias finally slows down a bit in Steinem’s later years that Taymor and Ruhl strike something special.  Moore ages forward and with the help of believable prosthetics manages to look remarkably like Steinem without becoming a grotesquerie of plastics in the process.  These quieter later scenes of The Glorias make up for the frenetic earlier part of the movie and lead to a final transition that I should have seen coming a mile away but didn’t.  When it happens, you suddenly realize that Taymor and Ruhl have done what they set out to do and connect Steinem’s past to our present with a graceful sincerity.  Essentially, they hand the film back to their subject as a way of communicating “If this is what Gloria Steinem’s legacy is to be, then let the final word on the matter be hers.”  And, simply, it is.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Addams Family (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Members of the mysterious and spooky Addams family are readily preparing for a visit from their even creepier relatives. But trouble soon arises when a shady TV personality realizes that the Addams’ eerie hilltop mansion is standing in the way of her dream to sell all the houses in the neighborhood.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Elise Fisher

Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  I have to admit when it was announced an animated reboot of The Addams Family was on its way to theaters…it happened.  It was a long time coming and always inevitable…but it happened.  I turned into one of those people that suddenly became overly protective of what had come before, treating it as some precious commodity that was untouchable.  How could they think of making another movie without the likes of Angelica Huston, Christina Ricci, or the late Raul Julia?  And animated?  True, the two live-action films were cartoon-y in their own way and The Addams Family had already been seen on the small screen as colorful cells on Saturday mornings for young audiences but I just didn’t want this particular property messed with.  Plus, this world that was created by cartoonist Charles Addams in 1938 was so smartly macabre I wanted it kept the way it was and left uncorrupted.

After what seems like a long path to movie theaters, The Addams Family has arrived with excellent timing as a Halloween outing option, though I was dismayed to see numerous parents ushering their young tykes into Joker playing next door instead.  It’s a mixed bag of a movie with some good elements in the form of spirited vocal performances and a droll script with a good message of acceptance that has a few genuine laugh out loud lines.  On the other hand, the animation is particularly ugly and off-putting, which in some cases may have been the point but largely was just bad design.

Part origin story (which I quite liked), we see how The Addams Family made their way to live in an abandoned asylum on the top of a hill in New Jersey.  Gomez (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year, an excellent successor to Raul Julia) and Morticia (Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde, curiously less successful) have raised their children Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz, Greta), and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard, The Goldfinch) in relative isolation, keeping them away from the rest of the world that was so cruel to them when they were young.  The family is preparing for a gathering of the entire Addams clan for Pugsley’s mazurka, a sword-dance his father has been trying to teach him that is of little interest to the mischievous imp.  Preferring to play with bombs instead of blades, father and son can’t quite connect on this important upcoming event.  At the same time, when a bubbly big-haired TV makeover host (Allison Janney, I, Tonya) comes knocking hoping to re-do the gloomy Addams manse to fit in with the entire town of Assimilation she has just made-over, Wednesday becomes more curious with life outside their small lot and asks Morticia to go school and not be “home caged” anymore, a request that causes the blood to drain into Morticia’s face, one of several funny visual gags.

The bulk of the film is taken up by these two competing storylines revolving around the children, with equal time given to both.  When the family begins to arrive and Pugsley gets put in the spotlight, it gives the animators room to create more peculiar Addams relations that would likely have pleased their original creator.  Though he seemed popular with the crowd when I saw the film, I could have done with far less of Uncle Fester…but maybe it was just the way Nick Kroll (Vacation) has voiced him like he has a numb tongue that started to grate on me after a while.  I got a kick out of Bette Midler (Hocus Pocus) as Grandma and you can judge for yourself if Snoop Dogg (Pitch Perfect 2) earns his credit for voicing Cousin Itt.  There’s plenty of visual flair to these larger animated scenes, aided a bit by the 3D upgrade I sprung for which added some extra depth to the expansive Addams mansion.

I just couldn’t quite get over how grotesque most of the animation so often looked.  Apart from The Addams Family who have their own ghoulish glow about them, the rest of the townspeople are all spindly legged monstrosities that are really off-putting.  Perhaps that’s what the team was going for, to show some parallels between the family and the townspeople that judge them but…I just don’t quite buy that easy out.  There’s just too many hastily rendered faces with eyes that are so close together you can count them as one and mouths that look like stop signs.  Speaking of disturbing, there’s far too many moments where sharp objects (arrows, swords) either enter the mouth, the head, or the back…it’s nearly all with Uncle Fester so it’s a gag but it was over-the-top for my taste.

In all honesty, I should have been able to let go a little more from the outset because so much time had passed between the last live-action film released theatrically (Addams Family Values in 1993) and this new one from directors Conrad Vernon (Kung Fun Panda 2) and Greg Tiernan (Sausage Party).  An entirely different generation has emerged and deserved being introduced to their own version of The Addams Family like I was back in 1991 when the first movie came out.  It inspired me to look back at the original television series and the original Charles Addams cartoons and might do the same for some kids today as well.  I’m glad this option is available in theaters now to encourage a family night out at the movies, parents can take their kids to this one without much concern.

Hollywood to Broadway – Hello, Dolly!

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Original Broadway Show: Hello, Dolly!, opened on January 16, 1964
The Movie: Hello, Dolly!, (1969)
The Broadway Show: Hello, Dolly!, opened on April 20, 2017

 

When Hello, Dolly! first ambled into town it had built in elegance.  Produced by legendary theater impresario David Merrick, directed by famed choreographer Gower Champion, and starring Broadway favorite Carol Channing, the musical was traditional as they come and played like gangbusters winning 10 Tony Awards and remaining on the Great White Way for a record setting run.  Well known for its stunt-casting after Channing left, famous Dollys included stars like Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, and Phyllis Diller, not to mention an ingenious staging of an all-black cast led by Pearl Bailey.  Hello, Dolly! also had a healthy life on the road with Channing touring as Dolly for years (decades, really), occasionally stopping back in NYC for limited engagements.   Strangely, the first exposure I had to the show wasn’t from a Carol Channing tour but Sally Struthers who performed the role in a local community theater production.

Four years into the Broadway run, 20th Century Fox released a film version of Hello, Dolly! and poor Carol Channing once again got the short end of the Broadway-to-Hollywood stick.  Channing was famously passed over for Marilyn Monroe when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made the silver screen leap and this time around none other than Barbra Streisand got her part.  This might have been some sweet revenge for Streisand who lost the Tony Award for Funny Girl to Channing in Hello, Dolly! – it’s well known that Channing and Streisand used to lunch regularly when both were treading the boards but Streisand stopped talking to Channing soon after she was bested by Carol.

Actually, maybe Channing had the last laugh since the film version of Hello, Dolly! was a fairly enormous flop when it opened…almost ruining 20th Century Fox in the process.  Miraculously, it was nominated for 7 Oscars (including Best Picture!) and won three but the film hasn’t aged well over the years.  However opulent the production and costume design were, if the musical itself was by the numbers oatmeal the film is dry melba toast.  It’s worth watching for the complete disdain co-star Walter Matthau has for his leading lady…even when he’s supposed to be falling in love with her.

Endlessly produced by theaters big and small across the world, Hello Dolly! still hadn’t had a Channing-less revival on Broadway until it was announced the Bette Midler had agreed to return to NYC in her first musical in over four decades.  Naturally, the theater community erupted with delight and the show’s advance soared to a record-setting $40 million dollars.  In fact, the show is so sold out that Midler isn’t even doing any press for it.  There’s no need…no one can get a ticket without paying a huge chunk of cash or waiting in line for a limited amount of standing room seats given out each morning.

That’s how I lucked out at seeing the show on my recent trip to The Big Apple. Getting in line with my friend around 4:30 in the morning, we weren’t even the first in line but had no trouble getting a ticket when the box office opened at 10:00am.  Already having opened to glowing reviews, I knew this would be a memorable experience and it truly was.  It’s hard to express the pure joy this production elicits…it’s just something you pretty much have to see for yourself.  Midler was in fabulous form, nailing the comedy and nuance of the role and doing a darn good job singing Jerry Herman’s score along the way.  While she’s a bona fide superstar and everyone there was there to see her, she never upstaged her co-stars…all of whom are the cherry-picked best of the best.  From David Hyde Piece’s droll but sincere Horace to Kate Baldwin’s gorgeous Irene, the voices are beautiful and the ensemble is sharp and crisp.  Special mention must be made for Beanie Feldstein  (Jonah Hill’s younger sister) who makes for a hysterical Minnie Fay.

With Midler scheduled to remain in the show for a year, ticket demand may free up as newer shows populate the landscape but be prepared for this to remain a tough ticket for some time.  The production itself is designed to run after Midler leaves…it just needs a star of her caliber to bring in the audiences.  With uber-producer Scott Rudin running things, expect some stunt casting to rival original producer David Merrick’s in the A-list department.

Movie Review ~ 20 Feet From Stardom

twenty_feet_from_stardom_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Chris Botti

Director: Mogan Neville

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The most I can ever ask from a film is that it moves me.  Now sometimes a movie will move me to the nearest exit and pronto when the lights come up but then there are the movies that you don’t want to end so you stay firmly planted in your seat until the final credits roll, the lights come up, and the usher kindly asks you to leave so he pick up all the junk left on the floor (note…take your garbage with you!!!).  20 Feet from Stardom is a film that captures your attention and doesn’t let go for a joyous 91 minutes.

In 2002 there was a documentary called Standing in the Shadows of Motown and it told the story of the legendary Funk Brothers, musicians that backed up countless numbers of Motown artists.  20 Feet from Stardom finds itself with a similar theme but instead looks at those using a totally different kind of instrument…their voice.  Backup singers don’t always get their due but filmmaker Morgan Neville shines a light on them and produces a truly magical experience that gave me all sorts of goosebumps.

Neville has an abundance of riches when it comes to famous faces that go on camera to endorse the various background vocalists they have worked with over the years but he uses people like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Sting sparingly in favor of giving more time to a handful of powerhouse talents.

Though Darlene Love may be the most known out of the group thanks to her yearly holiday appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and playing Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon films, there’s a nice balance between her story of coming up through the ranks and other, lesser known, names.  You may not be familiar with Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, or Tata Vega but after hearing some of the famous songs they sang back-up on you’ll always have a face to put with a spine-tingling vocal.

While the archival footage is fun, it was the present day material shot for the film that leaves a lasting impression.  Showing that time hasn’t changed the power in their timbre, Neville lets the ladies tell their own stories…the triumphs and set-backs, the struggles and the successes.

It’s an audience-pleasing, good for you kind of movie-going experience that I would hope everyone gets a chance to take in.  In a summer where the action movies are loud and the acting sometimes louder, it was so refreshing to see a film with a big heart to match some powerful soul.

The Silver Bullet ~ Twenty Feet from Stardom

twenty_feet_from_stardom_ver2

Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Release Date:  June 14, 2013

Thoughts: When was the last time you really stopped to listen to the background singers on a piece of music?  Artists often contribute to their own backing vocals but more often than not those featured on the track are simply relegated to the linear notes (and with most music being digitized these well-sung, unsung heroes may never really be recognized).  The new documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom moves the spotlight from the lead singer to those a little further back that provide harmony and unity to the popular songs of yesterday and today and it looks to be a crowd-pleasing winner.  Filled with celebrity interviews and a look at a few notable backing vocalists, I’m very much looking forward to this June release.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Stella

1

stella

The Facts:

Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.

Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason

Director: John Erman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas.  Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper.  Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop.  That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.

Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off. 

The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together. 

What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily.  All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy.  Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.

Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere.  Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable.  The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time.  Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky.  He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight). 

Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations.  The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.   

Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time.  I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina.  The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.