The documentaries always stand out at Sundance, and one of the best kicked off opening night, Morgan Neville’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” about the notoriously unheralded backup singers who have provided so many memorable riffs and refrains on our favorite pop, rock, and R&B recordings from the 1960s and ’70s. Four of the featured women in the film, Judith Hill (the sole youngster, she sang “Heal the World” at Michael Jackson’s televised memorial service), Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega, turned the post-screening Q-and-A session into an impromptu concert that rocked the rafters. (Almost all of them started out in church choirs.) A few days later I lunched with all of them, as well as another featured vocalist, Darlene Love, and their high spirits remained uncontained. They are all close friends. There’s talk of touring with the film together, of making a Christmas album. From Love, I learned the ultimate accolade these singers give each other after a particularly powerful rendition: “Girl, I’m gonna have to throw my shoe at you.”
There are many reasons – luck, drive, timing – why these women are not as well known as the famous lead singers, but their pipes are every bit as good. With the rise of rap and synthesized musicmaking, the “big” sound of these women is increasingly in less demand, to the detriment of us all.
Inspirationalism was also the order of the day for Lucy Walker’s “The Crash Reel,” about Kevin Pearce, the snowboarding champ who has slowly come back from a traumatic brain injury (suffered in a 2009 fall on the Park City slopes). Walker made the movie while Pearce, who at one time wanted to return to big-time snowboarding and now advocates for brain-injury victims, was very much still on the brink. She worried that her film might have this “terrible tragic ending.”
Pearce’s entire family, whose unfailing support is clearly his touchstone, was on hand at Sundance. At a party for documentary films, Pearce wanted to know what I thought of the film and then offered up his own extended review. It was mostly positive. Whew!