The Voice

Lead vocalists always get all the attention. Not to get all kids-these-days about it, but at a casual glance, it sure looks like we're in an era when people want to jump directly to fame and glory, without having to bother with any of that paying-your-dues nonsense. I've never been a fan of the spotlight, so I suppose it's natural that I gravitate towards the people who are carrying a star around on their shoulders more than the stars themselves. I'm interested in the voice-over artists who make cartoons and video games so compelling. I'll sometimes even miss what's going on in the main storyline of a movie because I'm scanning the extras.

So maybe the general movie-going public gets their excitement from a packed IMAX screening of Iron Man 3, but I got twice as giddy over hanging out on my friend's couch for a double-feature about people who often fade into the background. First up was 20 Feet From Stardom, which I've been wanting to see for months now. This documentary about the backup singers that heavily influenced the music industry for several decades while getting little to no credit is on the shortlist for Oscar nominations this year, and it's easy to see why people are caught up in it. It is jaw-dropping to see just how many hits a woman you've never heard of has made possible. Think about "Young Americans". Think about "Sweet Home Alabama". Think about "Walk on the Wild Side". What makes those songs truly memorable? It's the backup vocals, and this movie makes damn sure to recognize the African-American women who invisibly enriched the culture so thoroughly.

I didn't know going in that the movie was going to solely focus on black women, and I wish I had. Not that I would have avoided the movie at all; I just thought it was going to be about backup singers in general, and the thrust of the movie changes a lot when racial marginalization figures in. Only a bygone era of music is explored, and the natural follow-up of how backup singers are used (or not used) in today's industry is relegated to a few sentences. Also, a lot of the movie is devoted to the various successes and failures these singers have had in forging solo careers. Again, I'm thrilled that the women profiled are finally getting their due, but a movie that is ostensibly about the strength and honor of supporting another artist loses some of its punch when that support is assumed to have an end goal of personal fame. It was a good movie, and one I'm immensely glad got made, but I didn't wind up admiring it as much as I thought I would.

As soon as the end credits rolled, it was time to delve into another story of a woman's voice ignored for too long. This was In a World..., Lake Bell's debut in writing, producing, and directing. She also stars in the film as Carol, a vocal coach who dreams of being a movie trailer voiceover artist. Plenty of things are keeping her down, though. There's her famous father (Fred Melamed), whose grasp on his position in the voiceover industry only tightens when he hears anything of a (gasp!) woman wanting to take the reins. There's his protegee Gustav (Ken Marino), an arrogant voiceover artist that's been scooping up all the prime gigs lately. And then there's... Well, her personality. Carol's kind of a twitchy mess of nerves.

The story is actually pretty slight. Carol wants to do trailer work, and her coworkers help her do so. That's about it. Sure, her engineer Louis (Demetri Martin) is love with her, and she sleeps with Gustav without him knowing she's his newest competition, but these aren't really fleshed out any more than they'd be in a half-hour episode of TV. Tig Notaro and Nick Offerman show up, but have barely fifty words between them. That leaves the movie to be filled out by a strange and unnecessary side story about the boyfriend troubles of Carol's sister Dani, though it's always nice to see Michaela Watkins.

I'm griping a lot, but none of this made the movie bad; it was a pretty fun watch. It was just kind of thin. In fact, despite it being fictional, it had kind of a similar sheen to 20 Feet From Stardom. Here's a pair of movies that want to tell a story about talented women who are either ignored or prevented from reaching their true potential. Wanting these women to flourish is a noble goal, and one I think we can all get behind. I just wish a little more thought went into the crafting of the movies, and not just the messages they espouse.

20 Feet From Stardom: B-
In a World...: B-


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