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The summer is waning, but the heat in Nashville isn’t. I’m especially preoccupied with escaping the humidity and sweltering temps because the A/C in my car just conked out. Erg. When I think about cool breaks from the heat, a few movies I’ve seen this summer come to mind. I thought I’d share—maybe one or two will pique your interest too. Or at least provide an hour or two of distraction from that pesky list of “things to do by September” (good luck with that).
Searching for Sugarman (2012)
Never heard of Sixto Rodriguez? Neither had most North Americans in the 1970’s, when Rodriguez was playing in small venues in his hometown Detroit. Unbeknownst to him, and to the agents who couldn’t quite get his music to catch fire in America, one of Rodriguez’ albums made its way to South Africa, where it was copied ad infinitum and became the younger generation’s cherished resistance music. Political leaders even made up a story about Rodriguez’ death in an attempt to curtail the fervor. The documentary follows the South African music buffs who only quite recently discovered that Rodriguez wasn’t dead after all, but still living in Detroit and working blue-collar jobs. Fast forward to the scene in which this quiet man flies from Michigan to South Africa and plays for sold-out crowds. The South African community turned out recently in Nashville for Rodriguez’s concert at the famed Ryman Auditorium…his international tour will wrap up at Radio City Music Hall in New York in October. In his 70s, he’s finally getting his time in the spotlight. I loved this movie, and haven’t been able to get some of the songs out of my head. It’s one of those stories whose truth is fascinatingly hard to believe, yet so very compelling.
20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
I highly recommend this one. The film explores the lives of backup singers and the largely anonymous yet fundamental part they have played in music over the past several decades. These are the women who sing alongside the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, and Stevie Wonder (all of whom are interviewed in the movie), but who often struggle to branch out as independent artists. The stories of backup vocalists also offer an intriguing glimpse at how gender and race, along with various historical events and trends, deeply impact the nature and stature of this profession. I also thought it noteworthy that so many of these profoundly talented women learned how to sing in church, where they had to figure out how to use their voices alongside the voices of others instead of just going their own ways. In church, their would-be solos grew into richly layered harmonies.
Stories we Tell (2012)
Sarah Polley wrote and directed this documentary about her own family’s story—or more precisely, the myriad of stories told within her family. In her own search to find out more about her larger-than-life and long-deceased mother, she becomes the first to discover that her father isn’t her biological father, and that her siblings and stepsiblings have markedly different takes on what it was like to grow up in their family. I appreciated the artistic way that the film explores identity and the often elusive search for the “true story” of what really happened between people whose lives we ultimately only know from one perspective—our own.
Hannah Arendt (2012)
Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt described the “banality of evil” following Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Israel for his role in carrying out the atrocities of the Holocaust. In Eichmann’s bureaucratic loyalty to the orders he received, Arendt saw banal, just-doing-my-job thoughtlessness, a mindset disconnected almost entirely from the radical evil that was being carried out on a massive scale. Is radical evil the aggregate of bureaucratic thoughtlessness? The movie considers not only philosophical questions but also more personal ones; many of Arendt’s personal and collegial relationships are jeopardized by her unwillingness to paint Eichmann as a monster. Black and white footage from the actual trial is woven into the film, inviting viewers into the tension between Eichmann’s seemingly bizarre matter-of-factness and the horrors in question.