This Academy Award-winning documentary shines a powerful light on the people in the shadows.
This is a documentary about famous backup singers, including Darlene Love and her group the Blossoms, Grammy-winner Lisa Fischer, up-and-comer Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, the Waters family, and Jo Lawry, among others. It goes into the careers of these amazing performers who made so many of the iconic songs that we love and yet never got the fame that they deserve. It’s a stunning view of a part of the music industry that people probably never thought about. There are also plenty of big names talking to everyone, like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, and Sheryl Crow.
This category ended up being “Academy Award Winning Documentary Film,” and my first thought was actually to pick John Ford’s documentary on the Battle of Midway because I had seen the film Midway earlier this year and had selected a John Ford film for Day 17. I also considered amazing films like Man on a Wire or Kon-Tiki, but then I heard The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives on My Sofa tell me that I needed to watch this film, and it turns out that, like most men will eventually learn, listening to my woman was the right decision.
This film isn’t a dark war story or a film about children dying, it’s just a movie about some people that have undoubtedly influenced your life and yet you likely don’t know who they are. Even the ones that had their big moment have fallen into obscurity again. One of the things this film does so well is that it shows us the lives of these artists like you’d expect, but first it shocks us with how many songs we already know their voices from. There’s a single sequence in which we find out that Darlene Love and the Blossoms were the backing voices for songs ranging from “The Monster Mash,” to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” to the Crystal’s “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Moreover, it turns out that the Blossoms were the actual voices on the song “He’s a Rebel,” a number one hit, but Phil Spector (sorry, CONVICTED MURDERER Phil Spector), instead marketed it as a Crystals recording. That’s just one of the groups whose recordings you’ve undoubtedly heard, but never thought about whose voices were actually telling you “they did the mash.” Oh, and Darlene Love, a black woman, was one of the lead female voices on “Sweet Home Alabama,” something that even she acknowledges was a bit surprising.
One thing the movie mentioned was how different it is for an artist to have to constantly sing together on key and match someone throughout a performance. While my singing abilities are best described as carcinogenic, the way they explain it does succeed in conveying the added difficulty that many singers couldn’t handle. Not coincidentally, most background singers start off singing in church choirs; apparently that’s where you learn to harmonize with a lead. What seems unquestioned throughout the series, by both the lead singers and the backups, is that many of the backup singers are just as talented as most stars, or even moreso, but somehow just don’t get the public’s ear at the right time. It’s honestly sad to hear these great voices and these great talents not get the acclaim they deserve, but most of them made their peace with it and take pride in doing a great job as a backup singer. Others, however, are still trying to get their name out there, so they’re still trying to make that long walk from the background to center stage.
Overall, this was a great film. Unfortunately, it’s leaving Netflix on September 23, so, if you are reading this, watch it now. It’ll change your perspective on music.
A queer teenager has to deal with moving to a Conservative high school.
Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) is a young, flamboyant, and proudly gay kid who was raised by his very dramatic alcoholic mother “Muv” (Bette Midler). He ends up getting sent to live with his father (Larry Pine) and his nanny (Lorraine Toussaint) after Muv goes to rehab. Unfortunately, the local high school is extremely conservative, and Billy is immediately labeled a “Freak.” Rather than being ashamed, Billy tries to be even more outlandish and outspoken, and even makes a friend in Mary Jane (AnnaSophia Robb) and a friend/ambiguous love interest in Flip Kelly (Ian Nelson), but ends up being the target of a beating. After he recovers, Billy decides that he wants to be the first male homecoming queen, to the chagrin of Lynette (Abigail Breslin), the queen bee of the school, and to the delight of local reporter Felicia (Laverne Cox).
This movie is so close to being great, but unfortunately only ends up at “good.” Lawther’s performance is fantastic, as you would expect if you’ve watched The End of the F***ing World. At one point he does a dramatic monologue as Zelda Fitzgerald that is so over the top that it seems like it should fail miserably… except that Lawther nails it. That’s basically how his role frequently feels in this movie. He’s written so over the top and so unrealistically self-aggrandizing that he doesn’t ever really ring true as a character, but somehow Lawther actually makes it work. It’s hard to make a character work when he’s constantly thinking about how much better he is than everyone, although the movie does make him inherently the underdog, and it’s even harder when the character seems so undeveloped. It’s not that Billy couldn’t be interesting, in fact much of what happens to him in the movie should be, it’s that he doesn’t really seem to grow at all during the course of the film. Maybe that’s supposed to reflect that he doesn’t need to change who he is, but we watch films to see a journey, and Billy doesn’t really go on one.
Similarly, we don’t really get the full impact of the journeys of any of the other people. Flip is depicted as a jock who is trying to figure out who he is, particularly given his interest in Billy and his love of culture, but we only get a little bit of that story because Flip also doesn’t seem to grow much. While having such static characters could work if everyone else in the film was changing, and the very end of the movie almost makes that point, it still feels like it only touches upon that theme. The movie seems more fixated on showing the glamorous side of Billy rather than his more human side.
Overall, it’s not a bad movie, but it’s only okay. I wouldn’t mess your hair up trying to get it on your watchlist.
I got a request to review one of the corniest, cheesiest, most absolutely lovable Halloween films of all time.
Half of my audience is hopefully going to skip this part because they replay Hocus Pocus in their heads 10 times a day during the month of October and will likely yell at me for not perfectly summarizing their favorite line or scene in the movie.
For the rest of you, here we go:
It’s Halloween in 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, and Thackery Binx (Jason Marsden/Sean Murray) sees his sister Emily (Amanda Shepherd) get taken into the cottage of the witch sisters: Mary (Kathy Najimy), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Amok Amok Amok Parker), and Winifred “Winnie” Sanderson (Bette F*CKING Midler). The witches absorb Emily’s youth at the cost of her life and turn a protesting Thackery into a cat. The townsfolk capture and hang the witches, but Winifred casts a spell that will resurrect them whenever a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle during a Full Moon on All Hallows’ Eve, but what are the odds of that happening?
300 years later, to the day, Max Dennison (Omri Katz) and his sister Dani (Thora Birch) have just moved from Los Angeles to Salem. Max, who gets bullied by two idiots, Jay and Ernie (Tobias Jelinek and Larry Bagby), and embarrassed in front of his crush, Allison (Vinessa Shaw). However, Allison reveals that her family runs the Sanderson cottage museum. Max goes with her to the house in order to impress her and, showing he doesn’t believe in superstitions, lights the Black flame candle. On Halloween. During a full moon. And he’s a virgin.
The witches return and it’s revealed that the spell only brings them back for one night unless they can consume the lives of enough children. They plan to start with Dani, but Max tricks them into thinking he’s a sorcerer using a lighter and the fire sprinklers, allowing them to escape with Winifred’s spellbook and Binx, who is revealed to still be alive and able to talk. The witches give chase until they’re stopped by a consecrated barrier, leading Winifred to resurrect her unfaithful lover Billy Butcherson (Doug “I don’t know why I don’t have an Oscar nomination” Jones) as a zombie to pursue them. The sisters try to explore the modern world, discovering that Halloween is a holiday and that Garry Marshall and Penny Marshall are not, in fact, the Devil and Medusa (it makes sense in context).
The kids make it to the giant town-wide Halloween party to find their parents, but Winifred enchants the partygoers to dance forever using a song that is absolutely the best scene in the movie. The children end up trapping the witches in a kiln at their school, but they resurrect again a short while later and kidnap Dani and Binx. Sarah hypnotizes all the children of Salem to the cottage. Max and Allison manage to get Dani back and flee to the cemetery again, with Billy the zombie switching sides. The witches try to give Dani the potion that will allow them to consume her life force, but Max drinks the potion himself, forcing them to try and consume him. The sun rises before they can, leading them all to turn to stone and shatter. Binx dies and his soul goes to heaven with his sister’s, and presumably Max and Allison have the most boring second date in history.
This movie was basically torn apart by critics when it came out. It has a 33% on Rotten Tomatoes even with the number of people who have reviewed it since with their nostalgia glasses. While I’m not a professional critic, or even a very good amateur one, I do understand why this probably happened. Critics tend to follow a rubric when they’re reviewing and I guarantee this one performed low on almost every category. The script to this film is so needlessly bloated and unfocused that if you were to read it, you’d probably get lost. The protagonists have basically no emotional journey and they’re so bland that Max is short for “Maximum ‘90s, Minimum effort.” Billy the zombie’s character makes no sense. I mean, yes, it makes sense that he’d want to hurt Winifred, because she killed him, but it makes no sense that he would keep following her orders when she’s not there if he can just rebel in the first place. The two bullies, Jay and Ernie, are the least believable bullies since Bulk and Skull from Power Rangers. It’s super weird that people mock Max for being a virgin when the kid’s clearly only like 14. Also, Binx’s failure to prevent the black flame from being lit is insane. There’s only a full moon on Halloween roughly once every 18 years, meaning he only has to work about 20 nights in 300 years and he doesn’t just tell people “I’m a talking cat, don’t light the magic candle” on one of them? Or just piss on the candle so it can’t light? For that matter, why hasn’t he stolen and hidden it in 3 centuries? Ridiculous. So, yeah, there are flaws from a technical standpoint that would definitely turn a critic off.
However, as someone who is not a professional critic trying to fill a rubric, I say: screw all that noise, this movie’s amazing.
When I reviewed The Muppets before I started this site, I wrote:
“…[T]he fact that everyone in the movie, from the puppeteers to the actors to the cameos to the extras, all seem to be having fun making [it makes the audience feel some of that joy]. In any scene, everyone looks like they’re about to break out into a big smile…”
Yeah, well, this movie has that same thing going for it. While the protagonists might be weak and generic, the Sanderson sisters are amazing. Bette Midler plays every scene as big as possible and she looks like she’s about to break character just because she’s enjoying every moment of it. Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker, while I don’t think they’re having quite the same level of fun, are also clearly enjoying being able to play the most ridiculous and campy version of a character possible. They respond to each other in a feedback loop of absurdity that moves past “stupid,” barrels past “moronic,” and runs all the way back to “awesome.” Whenever the three are on-screen, you feel the joy radiating out of them and can’t help but be charmed by it. It’s a stronger spell than any used within the film.
Then there’s the musical number. The setup is that Max steals the microphone at a dance and identifies the witches to the crowd. Winifred quickly plays it off as a joke and starts singing the song “I Put a Spell On You” with her sisters as backup singers and dancers. Think about how insane this scene is. Winifred, earlier, was faked out by a lighter and a road, but here she not only doesn’t question the microphone or what it is, but proceeds to belt out a cover of an actual song from the 1950s with massively changed lyrics, which REFERENCE ANOTHER SONG (“The Witch is Back”). Now, arguably, she could have picked up the song’s name because she just heard the band play a completely different version of it, but that’s like reading The Iliad and then improvising The Aeneid. Sure, they’re similar in the broad sense, but the style and content are completely different. While the actual spontaneous dance number is ridiculous, the fact that her sisters can naturally sync with her is foreshadowed by the fact that they move in unison earlier in the movie. This scene is a perfect representation of this movie: Everything about it is insane, it doesn’t follow the internal logic of the film, and is so enjoyable that it’ll be in your head until the day you die because the people doing it are clearly hamming it up more than the Tasmanian Devil at an All-You-Can-Eat pork buffet.
It also helps that this movie is absolutely covered in Halloween. It takes place on Halloween Night and celebrates pretty much everything about the Holiday: Trick-or-treating, costumes, black cats, witches, scary stories, candy, zombies, and, of course, random mischief that would normally be illegal.
I fully admit that this movie doesn’t work on a lot of levels, but that doesn’t change the fact that you can recognize its flaws and still love it for what it is: Fun. Just a big ol’ ball of Halloween fun. I watch it every year, and I don’t intend for that to change.