Movies and Music
By Michael Sobota
There’s a power to what it is that we do. No one, till right now, has publicly acknowledged that. - Janice Pendarvis, a backup singer, in 20 Feet From Stardom. Music and movies are like bread and butter, salt and pepper, tea and sympathy. They are natural partners and their partnership is often integral to the success of each. Here are four movies that celebrate musical groups, bands, artists, and that rapidly disappearing phenomena, the back-up singer. Stop Making Sense (1984) I got a chance to re-see the restored, high-definition version of this movie, called “the best concert film ever made” by film critic Brian Tallerico, on the big screen at our SilverCity just last month. Director Jonathan Demme captures the Talking Heads at the peak of their mid career (the band was active from 1975 through 1991) with innovative film techniques that match their energy and dynamism on stage. The film opens with David Byrne walking from the back to centre stage with his acoustic guitar. He plunks a cassette tape into a boombox (remember those?) and proceeds to power his way through “Psycho Killer.” As stagehands roll platforms and scenery onstage behind him, he is joined by Tina Weymouth on electric bass and they riff into “Heaven.” From there, everything just keeps ratcheting up. Eventually there are a dozen musicians surrounding Byrne, including two of the most energetic backup singers I have ever experienced, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, pushing and swirling the music into an eclectic, energetic high. Magnificent. Music from the Big House (2010) Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli takes a trip down to the birthplace of the blues. She goes into the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola) to lead some workshops, and join with inmates for performances of shared joy. This is a maximum-security prison, so all the inmates have been convicted of charges like murder, rape, or armed robbery. They are also superb musicians. We get to meet them and hear a bit of their personal stories—and more than a bit of the shared music that elevates their incarceration into layers of rhythm and accomplishment. Chiarelli shines at the centre of this music and contributes some of her own original songs. Steve Cosens’s cinematography is subtle, not flashy, letting the music be the focus. We meet the inmates like regular people, working toward forgiveness in the music they all make together. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) Most movies about music focus on the band or the lead singer. But Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom starts away from centre stage. This is an exhibition and celebration of backup singers. Relatively few bands have them anymore, and certainly not local ones. Here we see some of the best in the world, with on-screen testimonials from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler, and Mick Jagger. And we experience Lisa Fischer, Patti Austin, Darlene Love, and others singing and strutting their choreographed moves that exemplify the harmonies and joy of backup singing. This is a powerful testament to the unsung who sing right in front of us, only 20 feet away from the featured vocalist. The movie won the 2014 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature Film. Band Aid (2017) The movie is almost a one-woman show for Zoe Lister-Jones, who served as its producer, writer, director, and featured actress. She also hired an all-female crew to get the film made. The story is a simple rom-com. Anna (ListerJones) and Ben (Adam Pally) are an unhappily married couple. She is an Uber driver and he is an athome slacker. They bicker and fight over just about everything, from who should do the dishes sitting in their kitchen sink to what they should watch on television. About 10 minutes into the story, Anna has a thought: “What if all of our fights were songs?” Together with their neighbour, they form a band and begin building their careers from pick-up gigs to small-hall concerts. The music ameliorates their angst to a degree, but eventually the story has to propel them to look more closely at what is causing all their bickering and anger. There are some preachy scenes, notably from Anna’s mom (Susie Essman), and the tension resolves too easily, but both Lister-Jones and Pally can sing and are talented musicians, and this is an entertaining comedy with good music and a talented cast.