Our love affair with the documentary section on Apple TV has not diminished. Actually, our love affair with Apple TV in general has not diminished, despite the rocky viewing of Clue over break, some odd connectivity issues, and a really terrible choice to watch Broken City recently. It is a sad day indeed when not even Marky Mark can save a movie. Thumbs down on that one—take our word for it.
But we have two really great ones to share!
1. 20 Feet From Stardom
This is one of the five 2014 Oscar nominees for best documentary, and it doesn't disappoint. It's all about the women who have made their careers as backup singers; they are a diverse group, but with one thing in common—they share the burden of being anonymously famous. Everyone knows and sings along with their riffs, their lines, their melodies, but unless you're a music documentarian you probably don't really know them. And they are amazing singers with really, really interesting (and occasionally heartbreaking) paths to the background and beyond.
The music industry is portrayed honestly, for better and for worse: you feel the disappointments that Darlene Love and Merry Clayton (among others) feel as they are unable to break through the circumstances that prevent them from becoming the stars they clearly deserved to be. The genuine appreciation felt by headliners like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Mick Jagger for their background singers is evident—though it doesn't do Ike Turner any favors (no surprise there). We were surprised to learn that Luther Vandross was one of David Bowie's backup singers, and felt an increasing sense of sadness as the message came through loud and clear that backup singers just aren't that essential anymore in this era of autotuning. The amazing anonymity that Lisa Fischer lives within is absolutely shocking when she opens her mouth to sing, as is the amazing lack of anonymity Judith Hill faces (yet can't overcome, inexplicably). When the clip of Bette Midler introducing Darlene Love into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is shown at the end of the film, it's a cold heart that doesn't feel a little weepy.
This documentary is so good because it makes you feel a little guilty for enjoying the greatest songs and voices of the 20th century without knowing or caring who you're singing along with, all the while reassuring you that you aren't alone and it isn't entirely your fault. It's a tragedy, yet a celebration all at the same time.
2. We Cause Scenes: The Rise of Improv Everywhere
We were ready to go to bed, really we were, but trailer watching is such a terrible thing to do sometimes because immediately after watching the trailer for We Cause Scenes: The Rise of Improv Everywhere we had to watch it, 10:51 pm or not. We were not disappointed.
This just-released documentary follows the unlikely path to success of Charlie Todd, recent college graduate yearning to make it big in New York City. He wants to be an actor, but realizing how hard that's going to be, redefines his dreams into something even better with a few friends, a few crazy ideas for pranks, and a really big heart. Even though this film takes place entirely in the 21st century it is shocking to see just how much the world has changed since 2001: when he started organizing small-scale "scenes" in New York City, there were no blogs, no texting, no iPods, no YouTube, no Facebook, no social media: only email and a clunky way to write up his stunts through the now-defunct Geocities website. Through organized but covert shenanigans, Charlie was able to grow his "collective" and pull off bigger and bigger scenes (he is adamant that "flash mobs" are not what Improv Everywhere is about). It's the best kind of storytelling, and he comes across as a genuinely good-hearted guy who really wants to give people experiences tailor-made for small groups of strangers who have no idea what hit them. Some take on an unexpected life of their own, some are hilarious, and they all make you shake your head because... how does someone think this stuff up?
The only Improv Everywhere scene I was familiar with before watching this was Frozen New York:
Highly recommended as both a really interesting insight into performance art in the 21st century and as a celebration of human ingenuity.