Skip to main content

Culture Documentary

Photo by Graham Willoughby/Tremolo Productions

Darlene Love
Photo by Graham Willoughby/Tremolo Productions

Documentary

20 Feet from Stardom

Her voice trembling, eyes watering, Merry Clayton admits, “I felt that if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

From Ray Charles to Sheryl Crow to Elton John, musical stardom has afforded many pop icons a measure of earthly glory. But in this documentary, the spotlight finally hits some of the 20th century’s greatest back-up singers like Clayton—people you’ve heard, but never heard of.  

Why haven’t the African-American women featured here become lead singers? “It’s a bit of a walk,” Bruce Springsteen explains, “that walk to the front is complicated.”

The hurdles don’t include lack of talent. Interviews with Sting, Springsteen, Bette Midler, and other stars testify to the abilities of these women. Plus, a soundtrack of pop/rock classics gives viewers firsthand evidence. Merry Clayton’s story of recording vocals for “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones—in her pajamas in the dead of night no less—takes a spine-tingling turn when her voice track is isolated and played for a newly impressed Mick Jagger.

So what kept them from realizing their dreams? Producers, for one. Darlene Love explains how Beatles producer Phil Spector recorded her voice, and then—against his word—released it on another artist’s record. But most of these artists aren’t quite sure why their solo careers flopped, and the critics aren’t that insightful. Several point to a plantation mentality, but neglect the possibility of flaws in costume, material, or timing.

What’s clear, though, is that the faith of these women helped shape the sound of a generation: Nearly all grew up as ministers’ daughters in call and response church choirs.  

While this PG-13 film occasionally flounders on the sex, drug, and rock ’n’ roll cliché (including foul language), it also hints at a grander tale. “God gave me this talent, and I intend to use it,” Darlene Love says of her success. And those like Clayton who keep singing from the shadows offer hope of a higher call and response.

Share this article with friends.

Roadside Attractions


Roadside Attractions

Documentary

Stories We Tell

“Who cares about our family?” asks the sister of actress/writer/director Sarah Polley, in Polley’s first documentary, Stories We Tell, currently in limited release.

Who cares about any of our lives? Well, we all care about telling our stories—even the worst storytellers among us write status updates. Polley tries to understand this urge to find a narrative in our lives and to tell it. This particular story is about her mother Diane Polley’s adultery, Diane’s early death from cancer, and how her children and husband perceived what happened. It’s really not about Sarah Polley’s family, but a family. The ordinary nature of the Polley family’s dysfunction makes it poignant.

Polley reveals in the trailer for the PG-13 film that she may be the result of her mother’s adultery. At one point Michael Polley, Diane’s husband, describes to Sarah how her mother considered aborting her. Diane’s doctor (who in the film describes himself as pro-life) encouraged her to keep the baby. Michael tells Sarah, in one of the film’s most emotional moments, “It’s amazing how close you were to never existing.” 

What Sarah candidly shows is a family very lost after her mother’s death and the subsequent revelation about her affair. All but one of the children, and even Michael, attempt to justify her unfaithfulness as “finding love.” The son who admits he felt disappointed in his mom is the only child who stayed married after learning of the affair—the three daughters all got divorces.

As the title reveals, this is not a film about Sarah’s self-discovery but about storytelling. As the film opens we see a crew setting up for an interview with Sarah’s sister as she talks about how nervous she is. Sarah shows different family members contradicting each other on small details, or disagreeing with how the story should be told.

One character tells Sarah, “The crucial function of art is to tell truth.” Though Sarah Polley seems unsure about any deeper truth behind her family’s story, she shows that she is a very good storyteller. 

Share this article with friends.

Avner Shahaf/Sony Pictures Classics


Avner Shahaf/Sony Pictures Classics

Documentary

The Gatekeepers

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has generated more than its share of war-weary, soul-drained participants, including several former directors of Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, the subjects of Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers

While their reflections prove engaging and often riveting, Moreh devalues the tough decisions his subjects had to make by characterizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an illegitimate incursion into Palestinian territory rather than a necessary measure in a region that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. For instance, the film begins with a description of the Six-Day War in 1967 that ended with Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and other territories. Moreh never bothers to mention the attacks on Israeli territory from Arabs in the West Bank that precipitated the war.

His slanted perspective mars what are otherwise largely nuanced examinations of the challenges these leaders faced in keeping Israel safe. One operation involved dropping a one-ton bomb on a building that contained a known terrorist, successfully killing the terrorist but also killing several innocents in nearby buildings. When the opportunity later arose to eliminate about a dozen Hamas terrorist leaders meeting together, concern about collateral damage compelled then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to authorize only a quarter-ton bomb, which would kill anyone in the top floor of the building but leave the bottom floor intact. As then-director Avi Dichter laments, the terrorists were all on the first floor and survived, and some of them are still at large.

Agonizing decisions such as these have left many of these former directors committed to finding a peaceful, two-state solution, even if it means negotiations with Hamas. As another former director Yaakov Peri puts it, “these moments end up etched deep inside you, and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.” 

This sentiment does not appear to hold true for Dichter, though. He acknowledges that by killing Hamas leaders, Israelis will suffer retaliation, but he strongly maintains that doing nothing will not end the violence. And so the struggle continues.

Share this article with friends.

Pages