Reviews by
Tricia Youlden

20 Feet from Stardom ★★★★★ M

The inspiration for this vibrant documentary came to the late Gil Friesen when he found himself listening to Leonard Cohen’s backing singers rather than Cohen himself at a concert. With director Morgan Neville, he set out to explore the world of back-up singers.

On early TV variety shows, backing singers were pretty white girls, referred to by later counterparts as ‘the readers’, because they followed a score. However, in the 1960s, emerging companies like Motown Records and Friesen’s A&M records began using African American backing singers, who had been harmonising in church choirs from childhood.

Interviews with 20 or so of these women, intercut with clips of them in performance, provide a fascinating insight into the machinations of the music business.

That it is very much a business is starkly illustrated by the career of Darlene Love who started out as a member of the Blossoms, then went on to back Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick and Sam Cooke. While contracted to Phil Spector, Darlene actually sang lead on records Spector attributed to other artists. Now in her 70s, she has reunited with her fellow Blossoms to perform again.

As these women reminisce about their highs and lows, their resilience is palpable. While most are still singing professionally, some have chosen other paths. Claudia Lennear, former backup singer to George Harrison, Ike and Tina Turner and Joe Cocker, has become a teacher. Dr Mable John, a former Raelette, is a preacher who leads her congregation in songs of praise.

Narrated by Bruce Springsteen, 20 Steps from Stardom includes revealing interviews with Stevie Wonder, Sting, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow, all of whom are indebted to the backing harmonies of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and many other talented singers. Sting’s heartfelt acknowledgement of Lisa Fischer’s talent is quite moving.

It is amusing to watch the various archival clips from film, TV and video. Ike Turner and the Ikettes and David Bowie’s Young Americans look so young! And it is entertaining to watch Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton recalling their 1969 midnight recording session of Gimme Shelter. In a particularly poignant anecdote, Judith Hill tells how she was rehearsing to sing with Michael Jackson at his upcoming concert, but instead found herself singing “Heal the World” at his memorial service.

These singers, their music and their humanity make this beautifully crafted documentary a thoroughly uplifting experience.

Fruitvale Station ★★★★ M

Bad things happen at Fruitvale Station.

It is New Year’s Eve 2008. At the age of 22, Oscar Julius Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) seems to be finally growing up. He is determined to make amends to his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), his girlfriend Sophina (Melanie Diaz), and their four-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), for the irresponsible behaviour that had landed him in gaol.

He throws his stash of weed into the sea and splurges on lobsters for his mother’s birthday dinner, even though he has lost his supermarket job.

When Sophina wants to go into Frisco to see the fireworks, Oscar goes along even though he would prefer to stay at home. They decide to follow Wanda’s advice to take the train.

After a carefree evening celebrating, they and their friends board a crowded train to return home. A chance encounter with an old prison adversary sparks a fight which leads to police intervention.

The tragic outcome inspired Ryan Coogler to write and direct Fruitvale Station. Passengers on the train filmed the actual altercation, in which Oscar Grant was brutally beaten and shot dead by a police officer. Some of this shaky footage is shown at the beginning of the film.

Oscar Grant is depicted as a friendly young man who likes to help people. He loves his family and is keen to regain their trust. Even so, his shortcomings are not glossed over. He lost his job because he was unreliable. He was unfaithful to his girlfriend. He hasn’t been the most attentive of fathers. In a flashback to his time behind bars, we see the hot-headed behaviour that so upsets his mother.

Coogler’s writing and directing are impressive. So too is Rachel Morrison’s assured cinematography, which, with believable performances, makes us feel we are right there with Oscar and his family on the last day of his life. The raw emotion of the scenes after the shooting is gut wrenching.

The slides at the end of Fruitvale Station make it pretty clear the film makers do not believe the policeman who shot Oscar mistook his gun for his taser.

The Counselor ★★ MA

Set in Texas near the Mexican border, Ridley Scott’s film is expertly shot by Dariusz Wolski. Yet, despite the stunning landscapes, glamorous settings, designer clothes, exquisite jewellery, exotic pets and expensive cars, this is an unrelentingly ugly film.

Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay has dark Mephistophelean overtones. Through nightclub owner Reiner (Javier Bardem sporting a most remarkable hair-do), the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has become involved in a potentially lucrative, drug trafficking deal.

Reiner is besotted with stylish sociopath, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), with whom he shares a lavish lifestyle. The Counselor is in love with sweet, God-fearing Laura (Penelope Cruz) who is the only vaguely nice character in the film.

Although Reiner and enigmatic middle man Westray, played with swaggering Southern charm by Brad Pitt, both caution the Counselor about the possible consequences of the deal going wrong he declines opportunities to opt out. He realises too late what he stands to lose. Although Fassbender is convincing, it is hard to empathise with the Counselor by this stage.

And, the grisly acts of torture and murder that are not depicted in detail on screen are described so vividly we might just as well have been shown them.

The 5th Estate ★★★ M

The makers of The 5th Estate do not pretend to present the definitive version of the Wikileaks story.

“We chose to present multiple points of view, to pose a lot of questions and then leave it up to you to come to your own conclusions,” director Bill Condon says.

Accordingly we are presented with not only the story of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch sounding uncannily like Ben Mendelsohn ) and his colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), but a fictional sub-plot involving US State Department officials (played with their customary ease by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie) for whom Wikileaks revelations pose not just an embarrassment, but a real threat to the safety of diplomats and intelligence operatives.

Another important perspective on the whole affair is that of the press — the Fourth Estate — namely the Guardian journalists who must decide whether or not to publish stories based on leaked documents.

Josh Singer’s screenplay is based on the book Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and the Guardian book WikiLeaks by David Leigh and Luke Harding. The film is slick and pacy but lacks the impact of Alex Gibney’s documentary Wikileaks: we steal secrets.

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby GHS.