Movie review

Unexpected Double Feature: Girl Most Likely and 20 Feet From Stardom

One of the truly—and literally, today—cool things about living here in Asbury Park is being able to walk to a terrific little arthouse movie theater, the Showroom. Today, we set out to see much-ballyhooed 20 Feet From Stardom but, because it was so hot and we wanted to attend the city council meeting just across Main Street at 7, we decided to make it a double feature rather than walking all the back home in between our two events. So we also saw Girl Most Likely, making for a very pleasant afternoon indeed.

The first first. If you wanted to poke holes in Girl Most Likely, it is extremely easy to do so. It’s not particularly believable, and it’s not particularly well written, and it is a mashup of a whole lot of movie genres, throwing in pretty much every device you could name save from a war picture, but still—there was a lot of sweetness in it, and a stand-out performance by Matt Dillon (who, as Sarah said, stole the picture). It could have been really good, I think, had it been more tightly written; even so, it wasn’t terrible.

Quick synopsis: the snotty protagonist, played by Katherine Wiig, after a series of devastating setbacks in the big city, is forced to come home to Jersey where she ultimately finds all the things that were missing from her life in Manhattan. That fairly classic plot is served rather poorly by a series of extravagant developments that strain credulity and attenuate the message, but the solidly loving brother-sister relationship was so respectfully conveyed that much could be forgiven—particularly when you added in the really excellent characterizations by Annette Benning, Bob Balaban, and the aforementioned Matt Dillon. The latter plays mother Annette Benning’s new love interest; this clip (watch the expression he proffers about 44 seconds in) gives a sense of how goofily surreal he is. I think he joins Kevin Kline, Johnny Depp, and Peter Falk, among others, on a select short list of leading men who happily relax into quirky character actors:

One of the things that struck me: now that we live here in Jersey, I was surprised at how flat these Hollywood conceptions of Jersey stereotypes were. Annette Benning’s hair and wardrobe seemed almost tasteful, certainly too tame, for the AC demimondaine. And the blobby, snarky Ocean City bar hoppers could be from anywhere: they certainly weren’t sporting the requisite complement of tattoos and ‘tude that makes the Jersey Shore so endearing and colorful and vibrant. The refreshing frankness of the Shore is a terrific antidote to the over-refinement of the Manhattan beautiful people: a contrast that could have been drawn a little more sharply here.

This photo of Lisa Fischer, one of the backup singers profiled in 20 Feet from Stardom, expresses the essence of the film: the pure musicality that infuses the subjects.

Way too much time has passed before I returned to this review to fill in the second of the two features we saw two weeks ago, but I will try to hit the highlights of 20 Feet from Stardom, which I found to be a highly entertaining, highly interesting, highly engaging, movie.

It chronicles the lives and careers of several prominent backup singers, primarily black women now “of a certain age.” These women—who include Darlene Love, Merry Clayton (known for her tortured, unearthly vocals on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”), Claudia Lennear, and Lisa Fischer, among others—tell stories of exploitation and exultation, bad choices and lucky breaks, celebrity and anonymity. But what struck me most and best was their almost universal dedication to their craft, their love and regard for making music and their irrepressible, undeniable need to do so. And because that seemed to be the overriding goal of almost all of the singers profiled—to simply make music—their stories are not ultimately sad or tragic, despite some foiled or failed attempts at stardom as solo singers. There is some resignation, and there is recognition from both the backup singers and the stars interviewed—who include Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Mick Jagger, among others—that it is not a fair world in which these women of burning talent did not break through. And it is difficult to repress indignation over the cavalier handling in particular of Darlene Love by Phil Spector, who shamelessly and repeatedly used her voice as a studio session ghost for other, unfairly credited performers. Similarly, it is hard to listen to the ethereal stylings of Lisa Fischer and realize that she somehow missed her chance as a soloist.

The women’s anecdotes of their heyday in the sixties and seventies are a distinct highlight of the film. In particular, I loved a mischievous exchange with Claudia Lennear, who attracted fame first as an Ikette, then backed up George Harrison et al. at the concert for Bangladesh, and inspired the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” Strikingly beautiful, she notes in her interview that she wasn’t looking to be a sex symbol or anything like that. To which the interviewer protests, “But you posed for Playboy.” Her abashed reconciliation with this truth is a wonderful instance of our past coming back to bite us. Lennear, by the way, is one who did not continue in music. Today, she is a teacher.

My only notable nit with the movie was that I think it tries to profile too many people. In particular, I think the interviews with Michael Jackson backup singer Stevvi Alexander, who is presently seeking a solo career, could have been omitted. She seemed to me to be more calculating, more focused on “branding,” than her older peers. I didn’t think she seemed in their league either generationally or philosophically. But she is younger than they; perhaps some of these other women were like her when they were starting out too. It is not easy to tell, as they all seem so wise, so tolerant, so adjusted, so confident in their choices now.

I have to confess to having previously thought of backup singers as just extraneous filler, semi-identically dressed trios who snap their fingers and “woo woo” into a shared mike, taking time and focus away from the headliner. This movie pointed out the grievous injustice of this perception, proving the vital synergy, energy, harmony these women provide. The movie time and time again shows the rigor and professionalism of these musicians. I stand humbly corrected.

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