The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: the Coen brothers’ take on Homer, a gripping documentary about a standoff between Philadelphia police and a black liberation group in 1985, and a look at the professional lives of some cherished backup singers.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Directed by Joel Coen
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? occupies an odd niche in the Coen brothers’ filmography. One of their biggest commercial successes, with a soundtrack that went octuple platinum and cleaned up at the Grammys, it’s also among their most formally rigid films—a dusty, colour-corrected romp through Depression-era Mississippi that marches to the weird beats of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, as well as The Odyssey.
Recasting Homer’s returning war hero Odysseus as an escaped chain-gang member (George Clooney) is a characteristically Coen joke on small people with high self-regard, and it’s a good one, sold by Clooney’s deft comic performance as the equally goofy and arrogant Everett, who is off to stop his estranged wife (Holly Hunter) from remarrying. O Brother coasts along nicely on the strength of its affable conceit and terrific score, care of T Bone Burnett, but some of the more incidental comedy, from a Mark Twain-like riff on a pair of vapid local politicians to a broader parody of white supremacist rallies, feels strained. The attempts at humour come off as a series of half-hearted jabs at American ideology from a pair of largely apolitical satirists, who normally get their laughs at the expense of more universal human foibles. This isn’t the Coens’ most accomplished work, but it certainly looks and sounds nice.
Let the Fire Burn
Directed by Jason Osder
Carlton Cinema (20 Carlton Street)
One of the most powerful documentaries of 2012 was David France’s How to Survive a Plague, a procedural account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic from the perspective of the LGBTQ activists and organizers who fought to educate themselves and lobby those in power. Its great coup was that rather than presenting history through present-day talking-head interviews, it restricted itself entirely to archival footage—everything from filmed rallies, to talk-show interviews, to news bulletins. Jason Osder brings the same rigorous approach to Let the Fire Burn, an absorbing account of the tense and ultimately tragic standoff, on May 13, 1985, between the City of Philadelphia and the members of a small black liberation group named MOVE.
From the prologue, we know that the standoff will eventually end in police dropping a bomb on the MOVE house, causing a catastrophic fire that will level virtually the whole neighbourhood, killing most of the group in the process. Our rooting narrative interest, as well as the film’s, then, is in finding out, strictly through archival images and video, how tensions between the police and the group came to this desperate point.
Let the Fire Burn is as gripping as any standoff thriller in recent memory, but it’s also intelligent, capturing both the Philadelphia establishment’s unspoken but obvious anxiety about MOVE’s mix of blackness and radical leftist politics and the group’s distrust of police procedures, without belabouring the point. It falters only when it overplays its style, as with its occasionally schmaltzy score, or in the moments when we transition between different video sources with an exaggerated tape-blurring effect, in an overly cutesy nod to the analog sources of most of the footage. Still, this is a critical story, told in a vital way.
20 Feet From Stardom
Directed by Morgan Neville
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Already a minor hit in limited release, 20 Feet From Stardom is destined to be a consensus title in this year’s award deliberations. Crowd-pleasing, energetic, and full of canonical rock and soul recordings, it’s the sort of backgrounder on American popular-music history that only a churl could hate. Whether it’s an important documentary (or even an interesting one), though, is another matter altogether.
Morgan Neville’s film treats the subject of backup singers, following a few major players like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton through their career highs and lows. In the process, 20 Feet From Stardom attempts to chart an alternate history of the industry through some of its most unsung talents. That’s a good topic, which might have yielded something revelatory in different hands, but Neville seems content to operate as a slick DJ rather than as an anthropologist, to the inevitable disappointment of those who might come to a film like this more for the cultural background than for the chance to hear the hits mixed with a dash of rumours about Phil Spector. Despite the fact that nearly the entire cast consists of African American women, for example, very little is made of how black background singers are used as authenticating devices in white male rock. Likewise, the phenomenon of background artists as eye candy is barely touched upon, as if it would be too unsavoury to get into some of the racial or gender politics of what seems like an awfully difficult profession.
In the place of these insights, we get standard commentary from the likes of Bruce Springsteen about how backup vocalists lack the ego and the narcissism of stars—a nice sentiment, to be sure, but one that doesn’t say much about the systematic inequality that drove powerhouse singers like Love out of the industry for a time.