The Listener at the NZ Film Festival: music & silence

by David Larsen / 31 July, 2013
Including reviews of 20 Feet from Stardom, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, and Norte, the End of History
20 FEET FROM STARDOM (Helene Wong)

Warning: the buzz you’ll get from this will probably hang around for some time. Morgan Neville, veteran producer and director of numerous music docs (he produced last year’s Crossfire Hurricane for the Rolling Stones) steps away from the headlining acts and trains his camera upstage and a little to the side to focus on the backup singers. You will never look at them in the same way again; or rather, you will look at them, again and again. You might even drag out your old rock concert DVDs just to see if they’re there so you can look at them.

20 Feet from Stardom

Tracing the rise of this particular category of singer from the mid-50s, when black women began to sashay aside the prim white girls who’d been doing it up till then, through the decades to the 90s and the dwindling of large studio recording sessions, Neville introduces us to an elite group, mainly black and female, who take us into their confidence about their careers:  the hopes, disappointments, joys and dilemmas. The latter, of course, is the Big One, the unspoken question: should I stay at the back, or move to the front and go solo, and if so, when and how. For some, the experience is an object lesson in the brutal realities of the music business. Having the best voice in the world (and believe me, there are some absolute spine-tinglers here) does not automatically guarantee success.

Perhaps the most valuable insight the documentary gives, though, is an appreciation of the particular satisfaction that comes from singing backup. In a world obsessed by American Idol and its clones, with the promise of instant, manufactured and individual fame, it’s good to be reminded that there’s pleasure and pride to be had in blending your voice with others to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s not all oo-oo’s and doop-de-doops; there are plenty of examples shown of certain diva moments that have become classic – except we didn’t know, until now, who the diva was. What’s more, we see the enthusiastic and genuine admiration of the stars being supported by those moments – Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen – confirming just how essential their, er, unsung role was to making a particular track a hit.

Neville efficiently pulls together interviews, cute and clever period graphics and performance and recording footage to make a digestible, if not completely flowing whole. That doesn’t matter, because what you’re really hanging out for is the next big sing, and you’re never disappointed – they are joyous, peak experiences. You will discover the voices responsible for some of your favourite riffs, and by the end, will know and revere the names of Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton and others. Finally, the coloured girls are getting their


The story of the power-pop band Big Star is, like their music itself, shot through with sadness. It’s also one that’s perfect for traversing the history of the Memphis rock-‘n’-roll scene, one that necessarily—and a little oddly—grew out of soul and blues music, and the all-pervading influence of the Beatles. Drew DeNicola ably captures all this in his long-awaited documentary survey of the band and its afterlife, the subtitle of which, taken from “Big Black Car,” beautifully evokes its author’s uneasy, crucial admixture of tenacity and shyness.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Alex Chilton, who at the age of 16, in 1968, had a number-one, four-million-record-selling hit single with the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” had, by the early ’70s, traded that raspy vocal tone for a smoother style—topped with a beguiling half-falsetto—and met Memphis singer-songwriter Chris Bell. Tragically, Bell would die in 1978 in a car accident—but, while he was alive, Bell, Chilton and their band made three records that contain some of the best love songs ever written and have, since the early ’90s, brought them enduring popularity and a following so widespread and readily acknowledged that it seems strange to still use the word “cult.”

The audacity of calling their seminal first album “#1 Record”—and of naming themselves after a big-box supermarket over the road from their first studio—might’ve helped to quash their chances at tangible fame in their lifetimes, but they were also let down by poor marketing. Stax, who bought out the small Memphis label Ardent Records in an attempt to curate a rock offshoot targeted at the white market, didn’t really know what to do with them—and though the band garnered huge critical success and enjoyed fairly good airplay (on college radio at least), frequently non-existent distribution left them stranded with little option but to go their separate ways. It’s not hard to pick out a myriad of influences on Big Star: you can most obviously hear The Byrds, George Harrison, and even some early Bee Gees on their first record—but their second and third outings cement them as unique artists, ones whose influence on pop music has been significant. (It’s no overstatement to say that “September Gurls” is one of the greatest of all pop songs.)

The film returns too often to an apparently seminal 1973 rock-critic convention that no one can clearly remember because they were all doing too much LSD and smoking way too much weed. DeNicola relies a little too heavily on one obviously short take, shot on 16mm stock, of the band goofing around and rehearsing in 1971—but, happily, it incorporates some unique gems. One of these is a piano-side interview—duplicated here in a web video by the Oxford American—with the supremely talented photographer (and friend of the band) William Eggleston; the documentary also includes well-contextualised excerpts from some of his films. It incorporates a bit of this mesmerising Elliott Smith gig (which also features the immensely talented Jon Brion) and culminates, typically for a rock documentary about so fleeting a now-canonical band, in a small tribute concert organised in the days after Chilton’s death in 2010.

A band that was ahead of its time by at least 20 years—“What’s Going Ahn” is arguably a template for the non-grungy segment of early-’90s alternative music; ditto “Thank You Friends”—now has a fittingly expansive documentary record of their trials and tribulations, and too-late triumphs.


Here is my problem. Helene and Hugh have each written about a music film. I want to do the same so we can have a themed post. I haven't been to any music films.

Obvious, then: write about Goblin Play Suspiria. Big festival event, big sounds, big deal. But there's only so many times you want to use the phrase “While I, personally, have no taste for this...” in one review.

So, write about bluegrass and the unexpected fact that the broadly drawn weepie The Broken Circle Breakdown left me wanting to listen to a whole lot more of it. (“I know nothing about this music, but it turns out my lifetime policy of avoidance may have been misjudged.” Yeah, let's alert the media.) Or else – oh, this is worth doing – write about the music of Upstream Colour, a film whose multivalent storytelling is impossible to describe in conventional terms... at least, I've tried and failed... but whose emotional shape is precise, and exacting, and sculpted more by music than by anything else.

I would like to write that piece. However, the truth is that I was concentrating so hard on staying abreast of what might or might not be happening in that film, I paid no attention to what the music was actually doing. I know that Shane Carruth wrote the score – as well as directing, editing, producing, playing one of the leads, and writing the screenplay from his own story, or possibly his own dozen stories – and I know that the score was busily combing through my head and rearranging my thoughts the whole time I was watching. I didn't spare any thoughts as to how. This – well done, Mr Carruth – is becase I had no thoughts to spare. I cannot now remember so much as the instrumentation. That's not even in the top ten reasons why I want to watch the film again. (And again). (It's fantastic, albeit - as I discovered when the so-cute dying daughter in Broken Circle Breakdown demonstrated her cuteness by hugging a piglet and I found myself frowning in appalled surmise - damaging to one's ability to take pigs at face value).

My music-in-film thing is not going to happen. Except here's a thought: of the films I've seen at this festival, the one which most effectively underlines the power and prevalence of music in cinema generally is the one that uses no music whatsover. Norte, the End of History is four hours, ten minutes long, and I think I'm right in saying that the only two moments of music in that time are a short burst of thudding rhythm on one character's radio, and a savagely ironic Christmas carol performed by a prison inmate, shortly before he beats another character half to death.

Norte, the End of History

Diegetic music only, then – that is, music whose source is located within the film – and very little of it. The opening titles, white text on black screen, proceed in utter silence. There are many more quiet moments in the story, but hardly any with no sound at all. When there is no music nudging at my emotional response, it's unsurprising but still striking how much my awareness of low-level background noise increases. The effect is to map out aural space far more thoroughly than usual, creating a sense of physical expansiveness. Everything takes place on a larger stage. This is, in space as well as time, a very roomy film.

It is not a lax one. After a couple of hours I had to get up, walk to the rear of the theatre, and stretch my back and legs; my body was aware it was doing the equivalent of flying to Sydney. My mind was not, to the extent that the end of the film took me entirely by surprise. I had wondered, going in, what exactly the case was for a four hour film in a world that contains long-form TV drama: there are well established alternatives for working outside the conventional limits of the cinematic frame, and, given that the adjective I had heard most often in connection with Norte was “novelistic” rather than “visual”, it did not seem obvious to me that I was about to see a story told in its ideal way at its ideal length, rather than something too abbreviated for Tolstoy and too distended for Chekhov.

At this point – at the risk of this review becoming distended itself – I should pause and thank the festival for its screening strategy, because the truth is that I was not merely sceptical about my odds of enjoying this film, I was worried that I would emerge in no fit state to see anything else for two days and lose a whole chunk of the festival. I had no intention of going to it. But it was screened three times in Auckland, widely spaced, meaning that after the first screening Auckland film-maker Doug Dillaman had a whole week in which to mount a relentless campaign to the effect that the year's peak experience was waiting for anyone brave enough to grasp that four-hour nettle, and the people he had won over by the second screening had half a week in which to tell me it was really something I needed to see. This is not a film that was ever going to pull a huge crowd, but it is exactly the sort of ambitious, masterful thing the festival exists to put before the public, and to find its natural audience – or at any rate, to beat down my resistance – it needed breathing space. Smart programming.

Breathing space is also what the film's story needs, and receives: it is exactly the length it needs to be. I don't agree with Doug Dillaman's argument that this puts it beyond the easy reach of the pattern-spotting guessing games we instinctively play with stories of all forms, or that it allows for the elaboration and investigation of character in a way which is different in kind, rather than degree, from the cinematic norm. Four hours is more than two, but seeing two fingernail parings of a character's lifetime rather than one is not such a big difference as all that; and in fact several very effective bits of characterisation are brought off with characters who appear only in a single brief scene, or only in a few.

The story is very deliberately shaped: characters' lives intersect and bounce off each other in a manner whose symmetry is no less detectable and expectation-forming for being non-simplistic. A single example: one character, in despair at the imprisonment of her husband and her inability to provide for her children, says goodbye to a friend at a crossroads and walks down a long, lonely road to a dead end, where she contemplates taking a terrible step. She chooses not to, and in the next scene we see her children going round and round on a merry-go-round, shrieking with happiness. Another character sits in a prayer circle, trying to come to terms with his knowledge that he has done something unforgiveable. He can't. He breaks the circle by jumping to his feet, and in the next scene we see him say goodbye to a friend at a crossroads and walk off down a long, lonely road.

You could use symbolism this overt in a far shorter film and not have it seem heavy-handed or overly explicit. But it is certainly the case that one of the things Lav Diaz – the veteran Philippino director whose films tend to be twice as long as this one – gains from Norte's running time is the freedom to feather his techniques. Visual symbolism is used sparingly. Even long takes are used sparingly – I had heard the film frequently offers you frozen moments so pregnant with meaning that they can afford to last... and last... and last, but this is no Turin Horse. The average take is a little longer than in most films, but then there isn't really an average take. Some scenes are paced like conventional TV drama. Some use long-held locked off camera shots to appallingly powerful effect. Many more simply move to an unhurried rhythm.

The film's concerns are explicitly moral ones, and the pattern it imposes on its characters – and to me it did feel imposed, rather than something organic to their natures – is one of opposed rises and falls, self-destruction and salvation. If it has a flaw, it's the usual one for stories of this kind: to return briefly to the language of music, the devil always gets the best tunes. I was far more interested in and concerned for the character who slowly sinks into a mire of self-willed degradation than for the sweet, patient innocents who suffer as a result, and slowly come to terms with their losses.

I interviewed the novelist Eleanor Catton recently, and the film reminded me of something she said, in the context of long-form HBO drama (which we were discussing as one influence on her new, extremely long-form novel). (This quote does not appear in the published interview, because it was an extremely long-form conversation, and I had to leave a lot of it out). “I really love the way a character is able to develop over a season, or a whole series, so much more novelistic in a psychological sense than a film can be. Where characters can surprise you, or take a turn for the worse, and you kind of start mourning them, or feeling nostalgia for an earlier part of their lives, an earlier version before they were corrupted, or made a poor choice.” If ever a film has made me feel that exact sense of nostalgia for a character's lost potential, it's this one.

Click here for more Listener coverage of the NZ International Film Festival.


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