Singing through the pain

Singing through the pain

Music is the driving force in "Uinfnished Song" and "20 Feet From Stardom"

By Carl Kozlowski 07/10/2013

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Two films currently playing at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 theater in Pasadena prove everyone loves a great song. 

The British dramedy “Unfinished Song” depicts the poignant and amusing tale of a crusty elderly man finding joy in a choir he joins to honor his dying wife’s wishes, while “20 Feet From Stardom” is a rousing documentary that shines a much-delayed but well-deserved spotlight on some of the best female backup singers of the rock era.

“Song” features veteran British movie star Terence Stamp as Arthur, an old Englishman living in a small town whose wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) is facing cancer while singing in a choir. The group has 10 weeks before a major competition, and when Marion is diagnosed as terminal, she asks Arthur to continue with the choir for her. 

He agrees, and as a result Arthur forms a friendship with Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), a vibrant young woman who volunteers helping the elderly sing in the choir each night, despite working as a schoolteacher all day. Elizabeth helps Arthur become nicer and to let his guard down while he teaches her the importance of finding the proper balance between her work and social life.

Meanwhile, Arthur starts strengthening his distant relationship with his now-grown son and gets to know his granddaughter better. As Arthur’s latest lessons in life embolden him and help others around him in profound ways, “Song” builds to an ending that should leave audiences shedding tears of wonder and joy. 

Stamp is particularly wonderful in a performance that richly deserves to be remembered at Oscar time. The movie has a slow pace at times, but the emotional payoff by the end is tremendous and satisfying. 

“Song” also features plenty of funny moments, with Elizabeth teaching the choir to sing saucy hip-hop songs like Salt N Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” providing the film with a needed kick of fun whenever it seems headed into a maudlin direction. 

Meanwhile, “20 Feet from Stardom” is a highly entertaining, joyous, yet occasionally sad documentary about the greatest backup singers of the rock and roll era of the 1950s and 1960s, offering the honor due them after a life of obscurity. The movie shines a particularly bright light on the wondrous Darlene Love, who sang for legendary producer Phil Spector on countless songs while only occasionally getting the credit.

Love was so disheartened by her experiences with Spector that she was reduced to working as a cleaning lady just a few years after her spectacular run of hits. But her tale of fighting back to get recognition and reclaim her life and career is highly stirring and inspirational, exposing a chapter of rock history that might have easily been overlooked forever. 

“Stardom” also showcases the story of Merry Clayton, who sang the shockingly stark riff about “rape, murder/it’s just a shot away” in the Rolling Stones’ all-time classic “Gimme Shelter.” As she recalls her experiences on that song and over many years with the Stones, audiences receive intriguing insights into the band’s work ethic and habits that will lead to a renewed appreciation of their music. 
The documentary uses a mix of archival footage and new interviews to tell these stories and those of other singers (including the late Luther Vandross). Along the way, many bigger stars who either employed these singers or are simply great fans of their work — including Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and Bruce Springsteen — also offer their thoughts on the fates that befell these performers.  

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