The art of the festival
January 18, 2013
By the time this column goes to press, I will only have seen one film.
It just might be enough.
The Sundance Film Festival, which began in the late 1970s as the United States Film Festival, before it nearly failed and Robert Redford saved it in the mid-1980s, kicked off on Thursday night with a number of films, in a couple of locations and thousands of folks from Qatar to Quebec to Kansas showing up. They showed up, in part, to be part of the scene. They showed up to work, to promote their films, their actors, their "talent." They showed up to just watch films. Just watch them, not as critics per se, or fans, really. As observers for some, and as witness for others.
The Opening Night second-slot film at the Eccles Center was, for that location, rare a documentary titled "Twenty Feet From Stardom." It focused on the backup singers from the 1960s until the present day, but mostly some of the original black women who took a page from the proper backup women from Perry Como’s proper vanilla image and used their gospel-rooted, full-throated voices to give soul to everyone, everyone, from Bruce Springsteen and Ray Charles to Mike Jagger and Sting and Elton John and Michael Jackson and David Byrne and, well everybody who mattered, if you are any version of a Baby Boomer and younger.
So much some would say too much has been written about my generation of draft dodgers and bra burners and civil-rights marchers and free lovers and experimenters. And this film, which follows the women who helped make stars of the men, also showed, without ever stating it out loud, how the black sound helped us evolve because those voices, those fine-tuned instruments, touched some primal place inside us that forced us to rebel against the norms and the laws that we no longer wanted to tolerate. And let’s be honest: In the heat of the sexual revolution, they gave us the beat.
What we learned in this film about their short outfits, and often short moments trying to be solo artists, is that some folks, some fabulous, incredibly talented folks, really like singing in harmonies and love not being celebrities but just being incredible musicians playing along with incredible musicians. In an interview by director Morgan Neville that you can watch on the online film guide to the Sundance Film Festival, you hear him talk about the tension created between the "we" and the "I." And you realize, while you know Mick Jagger was the one singing the lyrics to "Brown Sugar," it was the backup woman, Lisa Fischer, who gives the song its most memorable moments. In the film, when she hits those notes, so high, so clear, so deeply from a place where god and grace collide, the audience burst into applause at the power of that instrument in perfect pitch. She has, from 1989 until now, been the female backup singer on every Rolling Stones tour.
Recommended Stories For You
They were, as one singer explained, the ones singing the hooks of the songs, the refrains, the punch lines, that we were all humming. Think Lou Reed’s "Walk on the Wild Side" "and colored girls say doo do doo" and you’ve got it. I mean, was it shocking to have "colored girls" singing those lines or was it every bit as provocative as it was intended to be?
There were two standing ovations for this film, one as it ended and another when sassy Mary Clayton took the stage. With the slightest bit of nudging from the director, she took the mic and belted out her version of Joe Cocker’s (a singer she had backed up) "You Are So Beautiful." When it was time for the refrain, she changed the words on the spot. "Sundance you’re everything we hoped for, everything we need, you are so beautiful to me." And the crowd went wild. Just like they did when Michael Jackson’s backup singer, Judith Hill, sang an old gospel song with that great line about God watching over a sparrow. She hit notes that nobody ever hit in that theater before. Trust me. It was an alive, spontaneous, spectacular, only-at-Sundance moment.
Here’s the thing: When silly people make noise about art and how it is funded, they need to remember that, unless they are taking time to taste the full palate of offerings, they are ignorant, in the original definition of the word. To judge Sundance and the hundreds of films shown this next ten days by one of two films you could call edgy or uncomfortable would be to miss the entire curated body of art. And art in all its forms evokes emotion.
There should be films that cause one to be slightly uncomfortable, or curious, or perplexed a bit, or inspired to learn more. A few might make you angry, or sad, or confused or slightly bored. They will all touch on a piece of the human condition. They will all make us think in a slightly new way, with slightly new eyes. They should promote discussion, even debate, because art does that. Has always done that. It is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.
So behold! The festival is afoot. There are tickets available. There are free events from New Frontiers to the Music Café. The vacation has come to town, complete with troubadours and storytellers. Get out in the thick of it. Have a taste, any day or night this week, including the next two Sundays, in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.