On film's biggest night this past Sunday, music nudged onto Oscar's center stage and stole the show. Jared Leto's incredibly moving Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech was a beautiful way to start the night. Music-video directing legend Spike Jonze won the Best Original Screenplay award. Karen O and Ezra Koenig sounded fantastic and looked like the cover of a White Stripes album while singing their nominated duet from Her. Pharrell wore his hat. Bono was Bono.
John Travolta professed his love for musicals, then butchered the name of one of Broadway's biggest stars. Bette Midler's voice turned back time to remind us why we loved "Wind Beneath My Wings" before it became a maudlin funeral dirge.
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life, won for Best Documentary Short. Moments later, the very deserving 20 Feet From Stardom took home the Best Documentary Feature.
That film was not only the best of this year's documentaries, it was the best of a strong crop of documentary films about music released in the last year. In a perfect world, they'd all have been nominated. Here's my list of the best music documentaries from the last year, all of which are now available on Netflix.
GOOD OL' FREDA "Who would want to hear a secretary's story?"
That's the question Freda Kelly poses in the opening moments of this film. She's devoted 50 years to the profession, most of them workaday if you don't count those first 11 years. That's when she was administrative assistant to a band called The Beatles.
One of the most awarded music documentaries of the last year, Freda features incredible archival footage and photos of The Beatles dating back to The Cavern days. Kelly relates modern music history from the corner of her living-room sofa for most of the film, chatting casually about her friends who went on to influence musicians everywhere.
Although the movie is about music royalty, Freda is the star because it's evident she never stopped being a fan, even as she grew closer to the band. We'd like to believe we'd all be the same, humble person in such extraordinary circumstances.
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20 FEET FROM STARDOM I'd recommend the Oscar-winning film for, if no other reason, Tata Vega. She's just one of the artists featured in the movie, which focuses on the unheralded world of music's background singers. By no means is she the biggest name in the film, which includes Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen. She's probably lesser-known than other singers chronicled in the film: Darlene Love, now a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Judith Hill, who recently competed on The Voice; or Merry Clayton, the background singer whose haunting voice still creates shivers when listening to "Gimme Shelter."
But Vega's story is truly one of a singer who has worked steadily but toiled in relative anonymity. I first heard her in the 1970s when Mom bought her Motown album, Try My Love. It featured a great track, "If Love Must Go," which Mom sang every day for about a year. We next heard Vega singing vocals on The Color Purple soundtrack. Then Mom sang "Miss Celie's Blues" for a year solid.
The years passed and Vega continued to sing though she never had broad solo success. She's worked in the long shadows of artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson and, these days, Elton John. Once music went digital, I wore out every search engine looking for Try My Love, always to no avail.
Vega's story and others relayed in the film are testaments to pursuing one's musical dreams and how musicians can make careers out of dreams deferred. I'm happy to report, Vega's Motown albums -- including Try My Love -- finally went digital last month, thanks to the film's success.
List continues on the next page.
A BAND CALLED DEATH If these movies were all nominees, this is the film I'd hope Tom Hanks or some other A-lister would announce as an award-winner. It's a little older than the films on this list, released in 2012, but is so well done I had to include it for anyone who has simply browsed past it on Netflix.
The synopsis: a band of three Detroit brothers eschews the R&B vibe of their hometown and the black community in favor of rock and roll.The music they created has been deemed early punk rock by some listeners, since it preceded bands like Ramones and Sex Pistols. Music dignitaries like Henry Rollins and Alice Cooper, a heavy influence on Death, make appearances in the film and bolster the argument.
In this day and age, it's almost ridiculous to hear record labels once feared attempting to successfully promote a band called Death. The band's leader, David Hackney, is a study in misunderstood creative genius, and what sometimes happens to misunderstood geniuses. There's a sort of struggle Hackney has with his religious faith and what he's doing creatively that would later be mimicked by another, much better-known genius named Prince.
But at its core, Death is a story of family, one that begins with jam sessions in a cramped bedroom at the Hackney home and has endured to today, thanks to this film and a new generation of Hackneys who perform the Death songs -- which, everything else aside, are damn good.
PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER When they first became part of our consciousness, people who cherish self-expression everywhere were outraged by the imprisonment of the Russian activists who call themselves Pussy Riot. Thousands of miles away, we knew the plot line to their story, but this HBO documentary introduced us to the women who were brave enough to take on Vladimir Putin.
The best thing about the film, in my opinion, is how it transforms the story of a movement into something more personal. We learn who these women are and what moves them, as their story is an ongoing one. Whatever their political ideologies are can be set aside to focus on who they are individually. By showing us the lives these women lead, we see real people under duress, not just faceless revolt against political injustice.
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