I don’t always do very well with my Oscar predictions, but this year I felt very smug indeed – out of every single category (except the three short film ones, which I just didn’t know enough about so didn’t predict anything), I made the right call – with one exception. My pick for Best Documentary Feature was Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing The Act of Killing, not only comfortably the best documentary I’d seen that year but one of the best I think I’d ever seen. So I was pretty surprised when 20 Feet From Stardom – which I hadn’t watched at that point – picked up the award, and I resolved to watch it and find out what all the fuss was about. This background has coloured my reaction somewhat, which is a shame, because although it’s a perfectly decent subject and an interesting angle on something that isn’t talked about much, the way in which the Hollywood establishment has embraced it at the expense of Oppenheimer’s vastly superior work left a bad taste in my mouth.

Backing singers are, by their very nature, overlooked and vital cogs in the showbusiness machine, so it takes a hard heart not to deny them a moment in the spotlight, and the ratio of incredible talent against nonexistent egos makes its subjects extremely likeable (watching Merry Clayton belt out the spine-tingling female vocal that underpins Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones is nothing short of extraordinary). Yet this is ultimately a film about Hollywood congratulating itself – it doesn’t really delve too deeply into the injustices and shoddy treatment of most “background artists”, and it certainly lacks any socio-political cutting edge. By contrast, The Act of Killing could not have been any more profound, either about its subject matter or the very nature of documentary film itself. Plus, rather than telling Hollywood how great it was, The Act of Killing suggested that stylised violence within movies themselves sometimes act as inspiration for real-life incidents. And I guess la-la-land doesn’t want to hear that.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM
The subject matter of under-appreciated backing singers9
Merry Clayton's contribution to Gimme Shelter10
Structured a little bit like an episode of VH1: Behind the Music6
Reminding Hollywood how great it all is5
Being given the Oscar instead of The Act of Killing3
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
7Overall Score

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