While I can write a blog on the generally crap selection Netflix has to offer (Prime is where it is at people), one thing they do right is documentaries. For a couple of years now, this site has provided a wealth of Oscar-winning documentaries as well as stuff I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise, like the shocking “Dear Zachary”.
This second installment of this recommendation falls into the former category, as it beat the much-buzzed about “The Act of Killing” for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar last month. While “20 Feet From Stardom” lacks some of the innovation of “The Act of Killing”, it proves one of the core tenants of good doc making: your subject is key.
This doc focuses on background singers, primarily those of the Motown era like Darlene Love, who wasn’t just a background singer, but sang lead vocal on “He’s a Rebel” and “It’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. As a kid, my family listened to nothing but oldies music, so it was incredibly interesting to see just what kinds of circumstances some of my favorite songs were recorded under.
Hands-down best moment of the documentary? Watching a group of singers listen to old songs and they get to the novelty song “The Monster Mash”. without missing a beat, one says:
“This is the song where they told us to sing like white people.”
In case it doesn’t go without saying, race plays a huge role in this film. Sometimes it is addressed rather overtly, other times it is a little more veiled. In addition to race though, what is also great is to hear people speak candidly about how some of these dancers couldn’t succeed not for lack of talent, but purely because they didn’t fit in the mold of what a Hollywood singer should look like.
I should also point out that one of my former professors at USC is one of the talking heads in this movie. Dr. Todd Boyd, author of books like “Am I Black Enough for You?” and “Young, Black, Rich, and Famous” is one of the foremost authorities on African-Americans in the entertainment and sports industries and I legitimately guffawed when he popped up on screen because it has been so long since I’ve seen him.
But back to the question at hand–will you like this? If you like oldies music, this is a must-watch to learn more about that era. If you like documentaries, this is one that I would take care not to miss. Is it redefining the form of documentaries? No, it is, as I said, an example of an engrossing topic presented within a pretty standard format. But, as someone who really thinks that form can get overvalued these days at the expense of content, I will tell you that this was a great watch for me. I have tried to watch “The Act of Killing” and didn’t quite get through it yet, because it is not an easy breezy watch, what with subtitles (there is no English in the film), a highly visual style, and a subject matter that doesn’t exactly make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, what with the mass government-endorsed executions.
That is not to say “20 Feet from Stardom” is necessarily superior. I think this is an instance where they are both great. What I am saying to those who might be a little doc snobby though is this: don’t hold the simplicity of this film against it. To me, it is what the greatest docs are all about, which is finding a story that needs to be told and letting it shine for what it is in front of the cameras.