There are many, many documentaries worth watching, thousands in fact, dating all the way back to the end of the 19th century when the Lumiere Brothers, Auguste and Louis, decided to point their cameras at the normal, press record and see what happened.
What happened over the following hundred and twenty years is a movement of film so rich and challenging that there are few mediums able to match it for striking chords with all souls. From the people diving for cover from the oncoming train in the cinemas of Paris in 1896 to the people emerging from the darkened cinemas of the 21st century, documentary has punctuated the effervescence of modern cinema with the syntax of reality
If you have not had the pleasure of diving from your couch in fear of a screen full of train then, without doubt, go out and find the Lumiere’s work as it truly is fantastic. But an easier way to source the types of documentaries that will move you is to look at what the best of the best has been for the last number of years and start exploring.
One of the first films you’ll find is this year’s Best Oscar winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, an insight into the world of a number of largely unknown but wholly impressive backing singers who have worked with the world’s best musicians for decades and essentially provided the harmonies for the soundtrack of the 20th Century and the evolution of music from soul to rock and roll and R & B to modern pop. Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton are not household names but the songs they’ve brought to life over the last 65 years are amongst the most recognisable entries in the annals of music greatness.
Director Morgan Neville intertwines honest and sincere interviews with the women with incredible stock footage, a fantastic soundtrack (obviously) and the thoughts of a large assortment of music icons including Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting to name but a few.
The film moves at a blistering pace as it charts the successes and failures of these supremely talented vocalists as they rode the wave of the American Dream against the backdrop of the dollar fuelled music industry. Regardless of what becomes of their lives, the passion for the art of singing bursts through each person’s soul, beautifully demonstrated by Merry Clayton’s recounting of how she provided the stunning vocals on The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, and perfectly counterbalanced by Darlene Love’s account of hearing her song Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the radio of a house she was cleaning to make a living many years later.
There are many scenes filled with joy and love, and many filled with heartbreak but these unsung musical heroes give us a glimpse of a world free of the likes of “auto-tune” and ruled by sheer talent. In many ways you wish it could all be like this.
Peter H. Morris