The Big Star documentary was the one I had the biggest attitude about ever watching. “The last thing I need to watch,” I’d been saying to myself since its release, “is a bunch of Big Star fanboys raving over their particular favorite album and how much it meant to them and how terrible it was that they never made it and how great Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” is and how much all of it made REM possible!” Nevertheless, the documentary sat in my queue since the summer. Despite a dearth of live footage or rare recordings of the band, despite brief commentary by Ira Kaplan, despite a segment hailing the beauty of “I Am the Cosmos” I loved this documentary. The chorus of fanboy critics and musicians salivating over what made Big Star special to them made me recall what makes Big Star special to me. As I watched this film and heard arguments for and against the direction (or lack thereof) of each of the band’s 3 albums, I thought back to all the times me and my friends felt like the only people in the world who knew those albums existed. The film was just critical enough about each of the band’s characteristic shortcomings to make the “discussion” feel real and meaningful. The only thing missing were scenes in which all the fanboys (and even fangirls) got together to hash out their differences and rejoice in what it all meant to them. If only the filmmakers could have put together another music writers convention in Memphis, like the one that was organized by Big Star’s management, in large part, to introduce the band to its target audience.
Despite my reservations about spending 90 minutes with a crotchety old Levon Helm likely bitching about Robbie Robertson and hacking out his remaining lungs, I jumped right on the Helm documentary when I first saw it on Netflix last summer. Then, 5 minutes into it, I knew I didn’t have the stomach to watch one of my original rock heroes be miserable on camera. On one of the first days of 2015, however, emboldened by my surprising love of the Big Star doc, I hit “Resume play” and watched the remaining 85 minutes. Except for the occasional scenes trying to frame the Band’s history and legacy for Helm’s hoped-for acceptance, this documentary made Ginger Baker and his miserable documentary seem chipper. Many moons ago I had a dream about meeting a broken-down, junked-out version of the Band backstage at some shit-hole bar they were playing. It was a really depressing dream, the kind you wake up sobbing from. The Helm documentary confirmed that nightmare, but minus the empathy that I got from my dream state.
Finally, I watched Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary on back-up singers that my old group of friends first raved about at a gathering much earlier in 2014, or maybe even our 2013 New Year’s Eve get-together. This doc came up again at this year’s New Year’s Eve hangout, so I decided to call it up on my Netflix queue and settle in. I had a bad attitude about this one, too. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of harmonies and background singing. I figured, at best, I’d get some chuckles over scenes of background singers cupping an ear while harmonizing. That image never fails to elicit a laugh. Instead, this documentary was done with much more style than I’d expected. After quickly dissing all white background singers and making it clear that only black women would be worthy of this documentary (despite the constant presence of a white backing singer among Sting’s crew and a big white guy who was purported to be a backing singer for James Taylor), the film actually told a cogent tale of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and a handful of other women whose contributions we’d all know, if not their names. Even the story of the humble backing singer whose entry scared me the most—some woman given free reign to scat over any Sting song (not to mention the Stones’ modern-day touring version of Clayton)—turned out to be fairly gripping. There was great footage of these people in action with the likes of Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, and David Bowie. I’m disappointed that the story of not a single guy backing singer was included (and that white backing singers like the Jordanaires were completely dismissed), but hey, what were the odds I was going to sit down and watch any movie on backing singers? The filmmaker kept focus and made a lot more of the subject than I could have imagined possible, especially considering that the singers slung almost no dirt whatsoever regarding their employers.