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Women on the brink: “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Game Change”

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Comments on two films I recently watched, sans Jean…

Poster: 20 Feet from Stardom20 Feet from Stardom is a documentary profiling backup singers, a group of people I hadn’t given much thought to before—which is what made it interesting. Though a few male backup singers are interviewed, most of the time is devoted to the women who dominate this profession.

What they all have in common is talent. No “weak but interesting” voices here; they all sing with range, power, pitch, and control. So the question is, why are they just supporting the stars?

The answers vary. Darlene Love was long cheated out of stardom by producer Phil Spector, who would not release her performances under her name. The incredible Lisa Fischer had a successful record—even won a Grammy—but ultimately decided she was frankly happier in a supporting role. Many others tried and failed, because of having the wrong look, poor material, lack of promotion… Or just because.

Through their stories, we get the history background singing in pop music from the subdued style of the 1950s to the increasingly expressive 1960s and 1970s (“rock’n’roll saved us”) to its diminishing popularity in more recent years. It’s a reminder of how important those backup vocals are to many of the songs we love, like “Walk on the Wild Side”, “Thriller”, “Young Americans”, “A Little Help from my Friends” (Joe Cocker), and “Gimme Shelter”. (I had the lines “Rape! Murder!” in my head for days afterward, which was somewhat disturbing.)

Stars are also interviewed in the film, including Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger. But it’s nice to see the spotlight finally turned on the talented performers behind them.

This movie received a 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Poster for Game ChangeI finally got my hands on Game Change, the HBO docu-drama about Sarah Palin’s campaign for the vice-presidency, starring Julianna Moore. It’s somewhat old news now, but maybe it’s best to watch it when Palin is at a low point in her political popularity, because man…Otherwise it would be terrifying.

Admittedly, some scenes may have been slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect, but I did some research, and the essence of what was presented is true. The depth of this woman’s ignorance about the world was astonishing, as though she’d had no historical or geographic education whatsoever.

It’s not an entirely unsympathetic portrayal, either. You do kind of, sometimes, feel bad for her as she struggles to cram in mass numbers of facts in a very limited and very high-pressure time, while being made fun of on SNL. I did find myself rooting for her in the Vice-Presidential debate (which was certainly not the case at the time).

But when on more of an upswing, oh my God, she comes across as arrogant and self-centered and just… entitled and horrible. The way the woman herself often strikes me.

John McCain, by contrast, is given a very sympathetic portrayal throughout. But it’s not really his story anyway.

No longer a current event, but this is still fascinating and well-scripted biopic with a great cast. You get behind the scenes to understand how this could have happened: How someone so unqualified was running to be a heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the world. It’s not the easiest thing for the HBO-less to get, but well worth tracking down.

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