20 FEET FROM STARDOM (2013, directed by Morgan Neville, 90 minutes, U.S.)
WORLD WAR Z (2013, directed by Marc Forster, 116 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The world of classic rock was pretty much a guy’s show, with Janis Joplin and and Grace Slick being among the few women of the their era to grab rock’s glory. That’s the popular wisdom anyway but 20 Feet From Stardom may change your perspective on the era by spotlighting the achievements of the women, and mostly black women, who delivered the high points to classic recordings by The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lou Reed and David Bowie. Loaded with fascinating anecdotes and some of the greatest rock and roll music of the all-time, 20 Feet From Stardom is a must-see for music buffs, feminist scholars, and anyone who enjoys juicy gossip about the stars.
But it is the characters we meet that are most unforgettable. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Mabel John, Tata Vega; these names might not be recognizable but once they start listing their credits you realize you’ve sung along with them for most of your life. Most received their training in the church at a young age, and the film does a good job showing the gospel tradition that has underpinned rock and roll’s intensity. “Young Americans,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and other rock classics reach their sweet spot at the point where rock’s propulsive energy hits that deep gospel-ized feeling.
The anecdotes the singers tell about famous recording sessions are the meat of the story here. Merry Clayton beautifully evokes the scene when she was rousted out of bed to come to the studio to cut her unforgettable vocals for “Gimme Shelter.” “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!” After impressing Mick and the band with a first run-through she decides to really “go for it.” As the camera hangs on her face today, all the instruments are faded out accept for Clayton’s titanic vocal, running through you like an earthquake. The satisfied smile on her face speaks a thousand words.
Claudia Lennear makes quite an impression as the most boombastic of Ike and Tina’s Ikettes. Lennear sweetly recalls her “special” relationship with Mick Jagger, back when they liked to do “silly little things” like wear each other’s clothes. Darlene Love is on hand to tell her story of the struggle to step into the spotlight after leading The Blossoms, who sang backing vocals for everyone from Elvis, Sam Cooke, and Sonny and Cher (I had no idea The Blossoms were the singers on “The Monster Mash.”) A Blossoms reunion is given much-too-short a shrift as they briefly break into a heavenly version of “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
For some, like the ubiquitous family group The Waters (heard on “Thriller” and “Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls”) seem to have made peace as backing musicians but others have struggled with the ambition to be out front in the spotlight. The film isn’t shy about addressing the chauvinism and prejudice that has held black woman artists back, giving their triumphs a bitter edge. An interview with Bruce Springsteen also points out the difficulty of building a career as a singer if you don’t produce or write your material; one’s voice may be golden, but your success depends on corralling songs and production to match your greatness.
Directed by Morgan Neville, an old hand at producing musician bios for cable TV, delivers a rich and detailed background to the singer’s tales but he can’t resist going for a melodramatic final act. Built around one-time Michael Jackson duet-partner and finalist on TV’s The Voice, Judith Hill, the film allows Hill’s Tori Amos-esque power ballad to underscore all these singers’ struggle to continue working. Hill’s singing is much more in that overly-modulated modern style that sounds almost soulless when compared to the earthy gospel-powered emotion of her elders, it just seems wrong to have their battles voiced by someone below them in talent and stature. It’s a minor quibble though. What 20 Feet From Stardom leaves you with is a renewed love of rock and soul music and a deeper appreciation for the black women who were there when duty called on them to hit that note that was going to send a great record over the top towards musical nirvana. Mick Jagger might say it best here, “Fucking Hell, that sounds good.”
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Another week, another zombie outbreak, which seem to come as regularly as westerns came to screens on the 1950s. This week it is still-hunky Brad Pitt battling the world-wide zombie outbreak of World War Z. If this film came out 10 years ago its scenario would have seemed much fresher, but as it stands World War Z is a sure-footed no-nonsense trip down post-apocalyptic way.
For local Philly folk though, this zombie-fest is of special note because it happens here! Brad and his wife and two girls are stuck in traffic around Philadelphia’s City Hall when the zombies bust their move. These aren’t the slow-moving Romero-style zombies though, these wild-eyed zombie folk are the type to propel themselves against your windshield with super-human strength until they bash of hole big enough to eat the goodies inside. Glasgow plays the part of Philadelphia fairly convincingly (helped by some CGI-powered urban development) and the take home lesson for locals seems to be that if a zombie outbreak happens, the best route out of the city is Delaware Avenue to I-95 north.
Brad Pitt is Gerry, a former U.N. investigator whose experience in “hot spots”makes him the go-to man to investigate the origin of the zombie outbreak. While his family waits uncomfortably on a U.S. aircraft carrier, Gerry travels to South Korea, Jerusalem, and finally Wales on the trail of the viral bug. His advice to others is that survival depends on your ability to keep moving. This advice is wisely taken by director Marc Forster, who up to now has made some of the pokiest and flat-footed dramas, including the ill-conceived Daniel Craig Bond entry, Quantum of Solace. The film takes just enough time to sketchily define its characters (played by a uniformly fine cast) before mayhem breaks out and throws them entertainingly asunder.
World War Z has the giddy momentum audiences want on a summer blockbuster, while missing the deeper level that might make it something transcendent. It does take the time to throw in a couple of provocative ideas, particularly about the countries who escape infection: Israel and North Korea. Both are protected by their human rights violations: Israel is protected by its barrier wall, North Korea by forcibly removing the teeth from its entire population. The Israeli scenes (shot in Milan) are particularly intriguing: the seeds of their downfall are planted when the sound of multi-ethnic celebrations of Jews and Arabs draw the zombies to climb the walls like hordes of insects. Whether this scenario has been considered in the U.S. Senate’s recent Mexican border wall legislation is unclear.
While the future of man on earth is at stake, World War Z‘s finale is not of epic scale but is instead a mission to retrieve a germ held in a zombie-ridden medical lab. Fighting CGI zombie mobs has its appeal but it is the small-scale suspense that most engages. At under two hours World War Z might not be the freshest blockbuster out there, but it delivers what it promises at maximum efficiency.