Thursday, July 18, 2013

‘20 Feet From Stardom’ chronicles the path to the limelight

“20 Feet From Stardom” (2013). Cast: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, Lou Adler, Dr. Mabel John, Claudia Lennear, Táta Vega, Lynn Mabry, Jo Lowry, Stevvi Alexander, Patti Austin, Janice Pendarvis, Chris Botti, Bill Maxwell. Archive Footage: David Bowie, Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Ike and Tina Turner Review, Talking Heads, George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Phil Spector. Director: Morgan Neville. Web site. Trailer.

Stepping to the front of the line in any field of endeavor is often a challenging task for anyone seeking to get ahead. The path is riddled with obstacles and calls for hard work, and success is far from guaranteed. Such is the lot of those who ardently seek to rise to the top in the engaging new documentary, “20 Feet From Stardom.”

Backup singers occupy a unique position in the music world. They’re easily overlooked, but they’d definitely be missed if they were absent. In musical arrangements, they provide “completion” to the pieces in which their voices appear. In concert appearances, they’re an integral part in the performance landscape, contributing both visually and harmonically. And, in studio recordings, their input often helps make songs memorable. Indeed, where would we be without them? “20 Feet From Stardom” spotlights the role they play, making their significance apparent for all to see.

The film chronicles the history of backup singers from their gospel music roots to their early studio performance days to their rich and diverse present. It then goes on to focus on the lives and careers of a number of supporting performers, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. In doing so, the documentary examines the trials and tribulations of performing in the background and of attempting to make that physically short but metaphorically long walk to the front of the stage. It’s a journey that results in success for some and disappointment for others, and the outcomes are often based on factors other than talent, as noted in interviews with the would-be stars and with such recording industry luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow and legendary producer Lou Adler.

So why does success come to some and not to others? As in anything we undertake as conscious creators, the results depend on the beliefs – all of the beliefs – we hold going into the process. Becoming successful in any of the arts, for instance, requires the implementation of a combination of beliefs to make the viability of such a pursuit possible. For a backup singer seeking to step out of the shadows and become a lead artist, for example, it takes more than beliefs that support one’s talent; it also calls for beliefs associated with such other elements as successful self-promotion, ambition, charisma, stage presence, effective collaboration with fellow professionals and creating the right opportunities, to name a few. If any of those belief components is missing, the results one attains will surely reflect their noticeable absence.

For instance, for backup singer Claudia Lennear, who successfully managed to move up through the ranks and earn a solo recording contract, fame proved elusive, even though she was recognized throughout the industry as an outstanding talent; despite having seemingly “made it,” she inexplicably never realized the success she so earnestly sought. Likewise, for Judith Hill, success appeared to be right around the corner when she landed a gig as a backup singer with Michael Jackson, who was a major backer of her emerging career; unfortunately, that opportunity evaporated with the King of Pop’s unexpected and untimely death.

It’s hard to say exactly why these singers’ careers didn’t pan out as hoped for, but, from a metaphysical standpoint, it likely has something to do with elements missing from their belief mix, frustrating though that may be. Indeed, as Pastor Dr. Mabel John, a former backup singer for Ray Charles, observes in the film, becoming a success requires more than just having the gift of a great voice; it depends on what one does with that gift in bringing it forth to the attention of the world, and that’s where the promulgation of those essential associated beliefs comes in.

But is seeking success as a lead artist the only option to which a backup singer should aspire? Not necessarily, and some of the alternative probabilities to that goal are examined in the film. Lisa Fischer, for example, had a long and illustrious career as a backup singer for artists like the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner and Luther Vandross. Her mesmerizing vocals even earned her a solo artist contract and a coveted Grammy Award with the release of her first album. After that, however, her solo career mysteriously fizzled. One might wonder, as she did, why. But, as Fischer herself notes in the film, she came to discover over the years that she’s happiest when she’s just singing for its own sake; the art itself is its own reward, and that’s enough for her. Continuing to perform in the background may not produce the same notoriety as being out front, but, then, sometimes playing a valued supporting role – and forming the beliefs that make that aspiration possible – may be enough, especially if it’s just what one wants to begin with.

Backup singers who truly enjoy the role they play are obviously well acquainted with the concept of successful co-creation, the realization of magical manifestations that arise from the process of collective materialization. Such collaborations are a beauty to behold and a joy to participate in. Many backups are genuinely content to contribute in this way, and they have built successful careers doing just that. They provide a great example to show us what’s creatively possible when we embrace the qualities of – and beliefs associated with – cooperation and connection.

Still, there are those for whom being out front is the ultimate goal, and they’re determined to get there one way or another. Just ask Darlene Love. As someone who began singing backup in her teens, she finally managed to attain success as a lead artist at age 40. Her 30-year solo career since then has brought her widespread acclaim, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In getting there, however, she had to overcome many challenges, such as having her work relabeled as the recordings of other artists and wrestling with capricious producers who held her back. Her beliefs related to persistence and determination got her through those tough times and allowed her to eventually shine. And her experience serves as an inspiration for anyone seeking to become a genuine success at what they truly love.

“20 Feet From Stardom” is a real gem of a film, one that’s sure to receive serious consideration as the year’s best feature documentary. Its on-camera interviews are sharply insightful and to the point, successfully avoiding the pitfalls of padding or irrelevancy that often hamper many documentary efforts. It successfully draws attention to its metaphysical aspects without hammering home its points in the process, not an easy feat but one that’s handled here with tremendous skill, especially in the film’s editing. And the wealth of performance and archival footage makes for great viewing. Seeing the history of pop music play out from this truly unique perspective is something really worth watching.

Finding our place in the world is an odyssey of discovery for all of us. What we find we want may not always be what we thought we wanted, too. But, as in any undertaking, it’s the journey and not the destination that makes the trip worthwhile. As long as we create with sincerity, the outcome we realize should prove eminently fulfilling, no matter what role we end up playing.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

‘Way, Way Back’ offers a roadmap for those difficult years

“The Way, Way Back” (2013). Cast: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Liam James, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Zoe Levin, AnnaSophia Robb, River Alexander, Jake Picking, Jeffrey Ryan, Adam Riegler, Jeremy Weaver, Robert Banfield Capron. Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Screenplay: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Web site. Trailer.

Growing up is hard to do. The harder we try to fit in, the more awkward we often feel. But, at some point, things start to click. We find our legs or our voice, and life starts to make sense. The more we understand about this – especially the role that we play in shaping how events pan out – the better off we’ll be. This is particularly crucial for those who feel like they’re under the thumb of others who would intentionally or unwittingly hold them back, circumstances not unlike those depicted in the hilarious new summertime comedy, “The Way, Way Back.”

Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) dreads his upcoming summer vacation in the hilarious new comedy, “The Way, Way Back.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Spending the summer at the seashore may seem like a dream come true for many youngsters, but not for 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James). The prospect of vacationing with his divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his self-absorbed daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), at Trent’s family beach house fills Duncan with dread. Besides there being little to do and no one his own age to hang with, Duncan has to contend with Trent’s unruly friends, Joan (Amanda Peet) and Kip (Rob Corddry), and his wacky, tactless neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), all of whom epitomize the notion of “grown-ups behaving badly.” Pam tries to assuage her son’s feelings and smooth over his often-contentious relationship with Trent, but, if Duncan had it his way, he’d much rather be spending the summer with his father in San Diego.

To alleviate the tedium, Duncan goes exploring on his own. He ends up at the Water Wizz theme park, where he befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s manager and resident cut-up, and his staff, Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), Roddy (Nat Faxon) and Lewis (Jim Rash). Owen takes the long-faced teen under his wing, showing him how to have fun and filling him with a sense of self-esteem, a quality frequently undercut by the adults in his life. He even offers Duncan a job, an opportunity he jumps at.

Spending the summer with mom (Toni Collette, second from right), her overbearing boyfriend (Steve Carell, far right) and his boorish friends (Rob Corddry, far left, and Amanda Peet, second from left) is not teenager Duncan’s (Liam James, center) idea of a fun vacation, as seen in the insightful seasonal comedy, “The Way, Way Back.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Before long, Duncan actually starts to enjoy his summer. Besides making new friends at work, he begins spending time with Betty’s teenage daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who provides a nice diversion from the increasingly irresponsible and sometimes-hypocritical behavior of the adults at home. He even grows confident enough to call them on their bullshit, an empowering experience for him and an eye-opening revelation for everyone else. By vacation’s end, the once-confused teen finds personal clarity.

The coming of age story is a long-established film formula, and “The Way, Way Back” is the latest embodiment of it. In that respect, the movie’s premise isn’t particularly original, but, then again, it never hurts to have cinematic examples that effectively remind us of the personal empowerment themes that characterize this genre, especially as they apply to conscious creation matters.

Finding friendship while working at a water park helps 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James, second from right) cope with an otherwise-dreary summer vacation, thanks to the camaraderie of the park’s manager (Sam Rockwell, second from left) and his staff (Nat Faxon, far left, and Maya Rudolph, far right), in the delightful coming of age comedy, “The Way, Way Back.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

As obvious as it might seem, creating a reality that fulfills and satisfies us depends on doing so truthfully, with a clear sense of personal integrity. But such an undertaking may be difficult if we lack the requisite trust and belief in ourselves. As any conscious creator knows, beliefs are everything in making the process work, but a belief in oneself is perhaps the most crucial of all of the intents we draw upon in manifesting the existence we experience; without it, we’re essentially dead in the water (or, in Duncan’s case, in the wave pool).

Having sources of inspiration available to us is invaluable for generating the beliefs we need to build personal confidence and self-esteem, the elements that enable us to believe in ourselves. Thankfully, Duncan has access to such inspiration through the examples set by his Water Wizz colleagues and by Susanna. They help to imbue their friend with the attributes he needs to become himself. In fact, the examples they set enable him to become an example for others (such as the adults in his life) to follow.

In developing a sense of personal integrity, it’s critical that we follow the wisdom of our intuition, that inner voice that helps guide us in the beliefs we establish, the actions we take and the realities we materialize. Duncan learns this as he comes to believe in himself, faithfully following the inner guidance that steers him in the right direction. He gradually sheds the awkward, geeky attitude that characterizes him at the film’s outset, prompting changes that allow him to grow into the responsible, upstanding young man he ultimately becomes.

It’s ironic that Duncan evolves into a symbol of responsibility as the film progresses considering how often he’s initially criticized for even the smallest personality quirks or behavioral “transgressions” by the adults in his life, particularly Trent. They frequently blow Duncan’s actions completely out of proportion in demonstrable fits of exasperation, citing lofty platitudes to rationalize their comments. But, even though such criticisms are patently unjustified, is it any surprise that these incidents occur, especially in light of their own behavior? The irresponsible examples they set, which result from their actions (which Susanna characterizes as “spring break for adults”) and the beliefs that manifest them, are merely being reflected back to them through what they perceive as Duncan’s “reckless” behavior; he’s simply holding himself up as a mirror for them to use for assessing their own materializations, regardless of whether or not they acknowledge or approve of such actions or are willing to accept responsibility for them. Moreover, the changes in Duncan’s behavior eventually draw even more attention to their foibles, spotlighting just how immature and inconsiderate these grown-ups really can be.

The companionship of fellow teen Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb, left) helps angst-ridden Duncan (Liam James, right) get over his plight in “The Way, Way Back.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

This is not to suggest that Duncan becomes a joyless stick in the mud, either; far from it. However, he learns, through his interaction with Owen and the other adults in his life, how to distinguish between playfulness and recklessness. Owen is clearly a fun-loving guy who enjoys his life with a playful exuberance, but he’s always careful to avoid engaging in any behavior that would purposely harm others. The other adults, however, can’t say the same. Betty, for example, never hesitates to speak her mind in candidly colorful ways, but she sometimes fails to consider the impact her spontaneous utterances have on others. Likewise, Trent likes to play hard, but sometimes he fails to account for the pain his self-serving actions may inflict on even those closest to him. Duncan sees these distinctions and consequently develops beliefs for how he conducts himself that reflect this level of discernment. The grown-ups could learn a lot from him.

As noted earlier, the premise of “The Way, Way Back” may not be especially original, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in skillful execution. This is one of the funniest, most articulate, most smartly written comedies I’ve seen in a long time, providing big laughs consistently throughout. It features an excellent cast, who flesh out their characters effectively, especially in the supporting ranks (give particularly high marks to Janney and to the many talented young actors in this picture). In fact, it’s regrettable that the film’s trailer really doesn’t do the movie justice; given the rave reviews and warm reception it has received thus far, this picture could be well on its way to becoming the sleeper hit of the summer, especially if word of mouth recommendations build a case for it as happened with such past surprise hits as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002) and “The Full Monty” (1997).

At some point in our adolescence, in the midst of what probably seemed like incessant confusion, we were all likely cryptically told by our elders that “someday you'll understand.” The fortunate among us were able to figure that out sooner rather than later, though others of us no doubt reached middle age without a whiff of any greater clarity. So the sooner (and more thoroughly) we come to understand ourselves (especially our beliefs), the better off we’ll be at creating our reality and manifesting a more fulfilling life. “The Way, Way Back” provides valuable clues on how to go about this, offering tips that, one would hope, teens (and late-blooming adults) can grasp and embrace to make their lives at least more tolerable, if not downright enjoyable.

Now how rad is that?

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 5, 2013

‘Unfinished Song’ examines changing one’s tune

“Unfinished Song” (2012 production, 2013 release). Cast: Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, Gemma Arterton, Christopher Eccleston, Orla Hill, Barry Martin, Taru Devani, Anne Reid, Elizabeth Counsell, Ram John Holder, Denise Rubens, Arthur Nightingale, Jumayn Hunter, Alan Ruscoe. Director: Paul Andrew Williams. Screenplay: Paul Andrew Williams. Web site. Trailer.

When life doesn’t turn out as hoped for, it’s easy to slip into despair. But, if we adhere to the principles of conscious creation, we must also realize that, however our existence unfolds, the results ultimately originate with us. How we respond to those outcomes is what makes the difference in terms of how much fulfillment we get out of the experience and how we might change our circumstances if need be. These are some of the significant themes that characterize the story in the charming new comedy-drama, “Unfinished Song.”

If anyone ever epitomized the persona of a “curmudgeon,” it would be Arthur Harris (Terence Stamp). The crusty, middle class British retiree complains about virtually everything from indoor smoking restrictions to the well-meaning gestures of others to the life led by his son, James (Christopher Eccleston), a blue collar divorced father who works hard to help his parents and support his daughter, Jennifer (Orla Hill). In fact, about the only thing Arthur doesn’t complain about is his beloved wife, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), whom he truly adores. But, as insufferably grumpy as Arthur appears on the outside, Marion knows that his allegedly sour demeanor is mostly benign. She’s well aware that, deep down inside, he possesses the disposition of a pussycat; she just wishes that he’d let it out for everyone else to see.

Long-time married couple Marion and Arthur Harris (from left, Vanessa Redgrave, Terence Stamp) face an uncertain future due to Marion’s impending demise in the charming new comedy-drama, “Unfinished Song.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

Marion's wish, as heartfelt as it is, however, may also be one of her last. She’s rapidly succumbing to an aggressive form of cancer that leaves her quite debilitated much of the time. But, as someone whose personality is the antithesis of Arthur’s, she refuses to let her illness deter her from enjoying what time she has left. Marion spends much of that time singing with a seniors’ choral group (the OAPz) at a nearby community center. Leading the chorus of spry septuagenarians is Elizabeth (Gemma Arteron), a spunky young music director who conducts her crooners in a selection of pieces not typical of their age group, including works by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Cyndi Lauper, the B-52s and Salt-n-Pepa.

True to form, Arthur thinks the OAPz are making fools of themselves. Marion, by contrast, is having a blast. And, by intentionally selecting music not typical of her performers’ generation, Elizabeth believes she’s helping to keep the seniors youthful and vital compared to others their age. Marion and Elizabeth hold out hope that Arthur will come to see the joy their music brings them. But, as one who’s content to wallow in dour self-absorption, not to mention agonizing over his wife’s impending demise, Arthur won’t allow himself – as Cyndi Lauper’s hopeful lyrics earnestly implore – to “let [his] true colors come shining through.” And, as one who’s anxiously watching time run out, Marion prays that her husband comes to this realization for himself before it’s too late.

While singing to her curmudgeonly husband, Arthur, terminally ill songstress Marion Harris (Vanessa Redgrave) attempts to demonstrate how much enjoyment and fulfillment can come from creating for its own sake in director Paul Andrew Williams’s delightful new release, “Unfinished Song.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

Anyone who actively engages in conscious creation realizes that we create our reality through the thoughts, beliefs and intents we hold. The existence we experience is thus a direct reflection of what we believe, mirroring that outlook back to us with remarkable fidelity. So, given Arthur’s gloomy mindset, is it any surprise that his reality ostensibly reflects what thoughts he’s putting out? Having apparently bought into the idea that “life always disappoints,” he thus experiences an existence seemingly in line with that belief.

However, it should be noted that the emphasis here is on the word “seemingly.” As Marion so astutely observes, Arthur’s true demeanor is unlike the disposition he appears to put out. She’s without doubt that much of his attitude is mere bluster, that he’s truly a warm, compassionate soul on the inside – and she should know, having been the direct beneficiary of his innate kindness for all the years of their marriage. She’s convinced, even if Arthur isn’t, that he’ll get much more satisfaction out of life if he’ll only let that side of himself surface. That concerns her, too, given that her departure from his world is looming; she sincerely hopes that he’ll find a way to enjoy what remains of his life once she’s gone, especially since she’s apparently been his sole source of pleasure for a very long time.

To turn things around, all Arthur need do is rewrite the beliefs he employs to create his reality. However, that may not be as easy as it sounds, especially since he’s spent years building a façade made up of disappointment-based beliefs, despite whatever his authentic self might really be like. If only he’d make the effort to take a closer look at his life, he just might find that it’s not so bad after all, that many elements of it are right in line with the uplifting nature at the core of his being. This is particularly important for two areas of his life – the joy that music provides and the relationship he has with his son. If Arthur were to see these aspects of his existence with greater clarity, he just might reassess them and consequently discover that his life is much more worth living than he’s typically believed.

Self-professed sourpuss Arthur Harris (Terence Stamp, right) learns the joys that come from singing from Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton, left), a spunky choral director in charge of a seniors’ singing group, in the heart-warming new release, “Unfinished Song.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

To that end, the film strongly encourages all of us to consider the merits of creation for its own sake, no matter how the process is applied or how “well” any of its manifestations might turn out. A song sung with joy for the sake of its mere expression is intrinsically beautiful, whether it’s performed with superior artistry or entirely off-key. Marion and her choral peers understand this, and, even though they’re not the best singers, they always seek to get better (but don’t really care if they do). The joy that comes from the act of creating is reward enough. That’s part of our birthright as beings who have chosen to explore what characterizes the experience of physical existence, for better or worse. Now if only the rest of us could see that….

“Unfinished Song” is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon at the movies. It’s admittedly somewhat predictable and manipulative, but its predictability and manipulation are so well handled – thanks to fine writing and the superb performances of Stamp and Redgrave – that it’s easy to overlook these shortcomings. The film features a wealth of great laughs, as well as a number of very touching moments, all skillfully handled by director Paul Andrew Williams. Arthur’s back story is a little underdeveloped (we never get clear explanations about the source of his pervasive bitterness or his disappointment with James), so some strengthening in this area would have done much to improve the overall narrative.

“Unfinished Song” shows us that it’s never too late to change our tune – as long as we allow it to happen. By living with integrity, honoring the nature of our true selves and paying attention to the inherent character of our reality, we can alter our circumstances to our liking, providing us with lives of greater satisfaction and fulfillment. Indeed, if Marion can do this for herself, considering her experience, we’d be wise to follow her lead.

Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.