With the recent flurry of fascinating documentaries about underappreciated musicians that started with last year's Oscar-winning Searching For Sugar Man, you might be wondering where to start with these artists' discographies. Here's the lowdown on five artists whose stories have recently played out on the big screen.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me told the story of one of the finest bands of the 1970s, Anglophile power pop geniuses from Memphis whose career was hampered by record label incompetence and intra-band squabbles. The star-crossed Big Star Third, recorded by guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens after the rest of the band had left, is justifiably considered the band's masterpiece. But that album's inebriated darkness makes a little more sense after hearing the first two, #1 Record (the only Big Star album to feature co-founder Chris Bell) and the near-perfect Radio City. Those two are available on a single CD on Fantasy Records. Or you can get the 2009 box set Keep An Eye on the Sky (Rhino Records), a four-disc behemoth heavy on the alternate mixes, outtakes and live tracks.
One of the focal points of the joyous Twenty Feet From Stardom, Darlene Love was the secret weapon of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Literally, in some cases: The Crystals' 1962 #1 hit "He's A Rebel" was sung not by The Crystals themselves, but by Love and her group The Blossoms. The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love (Sony Legacy) gathers the finest of Love's work for Spector, including that incognito hit but not, annoyingly, her signature song "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." If you're interested in The Blossoms' non-Spector work, the fantastic U.K. reissue label Ace Records hits the high points on So Much Love: A Darlene Love Anthology 1958-1968.
The other standout of Twenty Feet From Stardom, powerhouse soul goddess Merry Clayton is best known for her thundering vocals on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," which was also the title track of her 1969 solo debut album. Though that LP and its three follow-ups are all long out of print, the recently released The Best of Merry Clayton (Sony Legacy) documents these excellent pre-disco R&B discs. It also includes her other best known track, "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow," which was used as the theme for Robert Blake's '70s cop series Baretta. So both Clayton and Love were professionally connected to famous men who were later convicted for murder. Weird.
The fascinating (though, some have charged, not entirely factual) documentary Searching For Sugar Man unexpectedly revitalized the career of a man who had been one of rock's most obscure cult figures, Detroit-born singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. An inner-city version of Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs with a soulful, haunted voice, Rodriguez released two albums in the early 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. Several years before Searching For Sugar Man came out, the estimable reissue label Light In The Attic Records resurrected both albums in digital, CD and sumptuous vinyl editions. Both are excellent, but 1970's Cold Fact slightly gets the edge for the creepily gorgeous "Sugar Man," a paean to the neighborhood drug dealer that remains his best-known song.
The most obscure act of the lot, Death were a mid-'70s hard rock trio consisting of three teenage African-American brothers (like Rodriguez, from Detroit) whose self-released 1975 single "Politicians In My Eyes" was for years a holy grail of underground punk collectors. The brothers Hackney only recorded seven songs during the band's lifetime, all of which can be found on the 2009 compilation ...For The Whole World To See (Drag City Records). As seen in the intimate film A Band Called Death, bassist/singer Bobby Hackney's three sons have their own punk band Rough Francis, named after a short-lived pseudonym of their late uncle David Hackney, Death's guitarist. Rough Francis just self-released their debut album Maximum Soul Power.
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Folk singer Rodriguez became a doctor on Thursday (09May13) after receiving an honorary degree from his alma mater. The Mexican-American star, born Sixto Rodriguez, graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in philosophy in his native Detroit, Michigan in 1981, and he returned to the college this week to be appointed a Doctor of Humane Letters during the school's 2013 commencement ceremony.
The Searching for Sugar Man star, who developed a large following in South Africa during the apartheid era, was recognised for his "musical genius and commitment to social justice".
Stepping up to the podium to present Rodriguez with the award, President Allan Gilmour said, "Over the years, you have remained politically involved and connected to the Detroit community, living humbly in the city... working to improve conditions for the inner-city working class."
Hollywood studios are known for dumping truckloads of money into their summer blockbusters, but if a script lands on their laps that screams "Oscar," they'll give the movie the same treatment. Scanning the Best Picture nominees, you'll find plenty of movies with budgets of hovering around eight or nine figures. Bigger can often translate to "best," if the equally expensive Oscar campaigns are to be believed.
As mammoth as the Academy Awards and their winning films have become, the show still has cracks that let the smallest endeavors slip through and take the spotlight. And at the 2013 Oscars, those starless, relatively unknown efforts might be the most important winners of the year.
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With do-it-yourself filmmaking technology continuing to evolve, simplify, and decrease in cost, more and more creatives are finding ways to bring their movies to life. And they're Oscar worthy: the 2013 ceremony marks the first time a film funded by the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter took home one of the show's coveted statues. Sean and Andrea Fine's film Inocente tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who struggles as an undocumented immigrant living homeless in San Diego but continues to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. The film raised over $50,000 on Kickstarter before going on to win the award for "Best Documentary Short."
Inocente tapped into power of the Internet to reach people who would be compelled by the film's message, giving life and exposure to an issue even before the Fine couple's efforts were complete. When many Oscar viewers learned of the Short Documentaries for the first time during the Sunday night telecast, thousands of people were already in-the-know on the film.
Technology is opening doors for filmmakers like never before, both in developing awareness and in the physical making of a movie. On Sunday night, director Malik Bendjelloul won the "Best Documentary Feature" Oscar for his documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The movie follows two fans from Cape Town, South Africa as they follow any lead that may connect them with elusive legendary musician Sixto Rodriguez. Bendjelloul began shooting his film on 8mm film — a pricey option, especially for the footage-heavy art of documentary filmmaking. When he ran out of cash to finish the movie, he turned to a considerably less illustrious camera option: his iPhone.
"One day I realized that there was this $1 app here on my iPhone and I tried it and it was basically the same as the real stuff," Bendjelloul in an inspiring interview from ABC.
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Not every filmmaking option has to be as lo-fi as Bendjelloul's creative solution, nor does making a great film require $100 million worth of talent, crew, and effects. Although Beasts of the Southern Wild didn't take home any awards at this year's Oscars, the fact that director Benh Zeitlin was rubbing shoulders with Steven Spielberg and the Sundance Film Festival premiere was in contention for Best Picture meant something to both Hollywood executives and those dreaming of becoming the next big name director. With a little creativity, and with relatively no money, one could make a movie with elaborate sets, epic imagery, and a cast of wild aurochs. The idea of putting together a film on the scale of Beasts seems impossible, but Zeitlin's team used every technological avenue they had to pull the thing off on the cheap.
That computer sitting in front of you, that phone in your pocket, that next tweet you're about to cast off into the Internet ether — as this year's Oscars prove, what looks insignificant can actually be a seed to the next Academy Award winning movie. It's all a matter of what you do with it.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics]
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