'20 Feet From Stardom': Go See It

A great film about music, and more.

[My wife and I and a friend went to this movie last night, and in my enthusiasm I hammered out the item below as soon as we got home. Then I got distracted by the George Zimmerman outcome. About that, I will refer you to my colleagues TNC and Andrew Cohen: I agree with them that the real problem revealed here is not with the jury or the trial or even the verdict but with the law itself, and related matters

On reflection I've decided just to post this as it was. It's a great movie, in general and perhaps especially at this particular moment. Original item follows.] 

I know, you might have sources other than me for your pop-culture guidance. But trust me on this one: you will be glad to have gone out of your way to see Twenty Feet From Stardom. Thanks to one of my sons for having given me the same "You've got to see this movie" pitch. 


There are lots of themes that are evident from the movie, notably the pure joy of human artistry and endeavor. I will give a shorthand for an aspect other than the music that resonated most with me.

This is the kind of movie I hope everyone outside the U.S. could see, for its role as window onto, and revelation of, the real nature of America. I am officially of plain-old-whitebread WASP American origin (plus Neanderthal). But the more years I spend outside the country, the more obvious it becomes that America's distinctive culture, and strength, is the wild/chaotic melange of elements it manages to include, as almost no other society or nation can. And -- the part that becomes much more obvious when you're outside the country and viewing all of its people as "us" -- the entire range of elements included in that mix also becomes part of the identity of each one of us. Even though I am white and male and from the Baby Boom-era small-town West etc, the parts of American culture that are black and Latino and Asian and Jewish and Italian and Greek and German and Muslim and urban and Southern and Northeastern etc have shaped the national identity and therefore are significant parts of me.

That's what I was reminded of watching this movie. Its leading figures are African-American, and in one case African-Asian-American, and some (not all) of their stories involve unfair barriers they faced. But I know that if I were watching this movie in Shanghai or Yokohama or Berlin I'd want to say to any foreigners who would listen, This is America! Look how great and capacious it is, and how great and talented these singers are, and -- again -- how remarkable it is that the "us" of the American identity bears such clear marks of all the different people who, despite inevitable friction, come together and pursue their hopes here. 

The film is also about youth and age, and about luck good and bad, and about individual versus collective satisfactions, and lots more. You could think about that, or you could just take it as a great 90-minute immersion in music. By whatever standard, you'll be glad to check it out. 
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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