The film is a collection of related shorts, each based on a single story from Tim Winton’s acclaimed book of the same name. That much I knew. As story after story rolled through, each produced by a different Australian creative team, who each took a unique and original approach to storytelling, I started to see connections between them. Many of these connections were visual – the recurrence of rusty, abandoned cars, and people living in caravans. Some were geographic – a Western Australian mining community surrounded on one side by red dirt and on the other by the ocean. Damaged, corroded and corrupted masculinity. Redheads. The name Vic.
Afterwards, I read a copy of the glossy souvenir booklet that viewers get to take away with them when they buy a ticket for this “special cinematic event” and those connections became clearer. In Winton’s book all of the stories interconnect – characters reoccur (often at different stages of their lives) and events we see in one story might be referred to obliquely in another.
One approach to the material might have been to transform it into a single narrative feature, with a rich cast of characters and a conventional beginning, middle and end. Instead, producer Robert Connolly has created something bolder, more challenging and ultimately more moving – reflecting the shifting currents of memory and the emotional baggage that gets tossed around on them.
Most of the shorts also end abruptly, slightly before you might normally expect them to, and this is a technique that should be encouraged in most things – you don’t have to go all the way to the end to get to the point.
20 Feet from Stardom is the most satisfying music documentary of the last five years, maybe even longer, and that is really saying something. It is the story of pop’s backing singers, the girls (and they are almost always girls) who stand at the back of the stage doing the doo-wahs, the response part of the ‘call and response’ that gave rock and soul music their distinctive sound.
These were phenomenal artists in their own right: Darlene Love, who was given a new name by Phil Spector before he stole her career right out from under her; Merry Clayton, who got a middle-of-the-night phone call from the Rolling Stones and turned up in her curlers to belt out the spine-chilling vocal on ‘Gimme Shelter’; and the amazing Lisa Fischer, who won a Grammy as a solo artist in 1992 but is now content to provide her extraordinary talent to the Stones, Sting and Nine Inch Nails.
These women are forthright, wise and insightful – no surprise, since they watch the whole scene unfold around them. You’ll see nothing better this month.
20 Feet makes a great companion piece to The Butler, a stagy but sincere history of post-war Black America from the point of view of a White House servant (played by Forest Whitaker). It works as a pointed reminder that it has been a very short time since the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s and that the election of a Black president in 2008 was only another stage in the fight for freedom and equality that has been ongoing since the Civil War. It works less well as pure drama, despite a marvellous performance by Oprah Winfrey as Whitaker’s long-suffering wife – where has she been since The Color Purple? Oh right, I remember.
The Turning 4 stars
20 Feet 5 stars
The Butler 3.5 stars
November Film Recommendations
The Counselor (Ridley Scott)
Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz star in a thriller written by acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy (The Road) in his screenwriting debut. Ridley Scott is in the director’s chair for his first film since the bloated misfire of Prometheus.
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
When James Gandolfini died suddenly in June this year, millions mourned the loss of Tony Soprano. I was more concerned about the great film performances we weren’t going to see from an actor hitting his big-screen straps in films like Killing Them Softly and In the Loop. Luckily, he left a few performances in the can, including this one, which is garnering serious award speculation for Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence)
The Hunger Games is a tiny island of quality in a sea of pap aimed at indiscriminating teens, and the trailers for part 2 have more often than not been the highlight of my recent trips to the movies. Jennifer Lawrence returns as archer and freedom fighter Katniss Everdeen, as her triumph in her first Hunger Games serves only to raise the stakes for all concerned.
Filth (Jon S. Baird)
While we wait for the oft-speculated Trainspotting sequel, Porno, we have to make do with this adaptation of another Irvine Welsh novel, which sees James McAvoy pushing his new bad boy persona about as far as possible – as a drug-addicted, bipolar cop on a rampage through Glasgow.