Two in a Row for Rock Docs in Oscar Category

In the end, it may have been that much-lauded “The Act of Killing” was just a wee bit too radical for the Academy voters (see previous post), so for the second year in a row the statuette for best feature documentary went to a music film. The vivacious and lovable “20 Feet from Stardom” was probably as deserving a winner in what is by its very nature an apples-and-oranges competition. And thanks to the unstoppable Darlene Love, the acceptance “speech” turned into one of the night’s most memorable moments:

Ms. Love was a subject of the film and not one of the actual award winners, but when director Morgan Neville and the producers let her do her thing it could only help the already raised profile of a feelgood film that has connected with over 500,000 people in its theatrical release, great numbers for a documentary.

Exactly one year ago today, I began this blog by mentioning the recent Oscar win of “Searching for Sugar Man”, the second rock doc to win the award, the other being “Woodstock” way back in 1970. Now there are two in a row and there may be more to follow. The redemptive or belated-recognition pop music documentary has really taken off in recent years and will probably only get more popular as rock and roll’s golden age recedes ever into the past.

Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, whose luckless career as a singer-songwriter was salvaged by the unlikely admiration bestowed upon him decades later by countless South Africans or Darlene Love, whose ace lead vocals went uncredited on a #1 single in 1963 and who (along with many other studio vocalists) had to fight against forced anonymity and industry ill treatment, are just two of the better known examples of this mini-genre. “New York Doll” was when it first came to me as a distinct subset (in 2005) and there’s been many since then, with “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” and “Gene Clark: The Byrd Who Flew Alone” next up in my docket.


“Now it’s time to leave the capsule, if you dare”

I’ll leave the discussion of Hollywood’s big night to the 173 million other media outlets that hash it over. However, I was a tad disappointed that the science fiction genre was once again passed up as a legit contender for Best Picture. It was nice to see the visionary Alfonso Cuaron win for Best Director and in my mind was due one about seven years ago for the masterful “Children of Men.” But in the end “12 Years as a Slave” had more gravitas than “Gravity” (sorry) and already tedious idiomatic arguments about whether his nominated film was even science fiction or just a disaster film shot in outer space have sworn me off the subject for some time to come. Meanwhile, we have in Steve McQueen the first African-American director of a winning picture and how cool is that?

Another good outcome was that “Wolf of Wall Street” came away empty-handed and so depraved felon Jordan Belfort, who somehow got his claws into Martin Scorcese, does not for the moment have any further reason to laugh in the faces of the American citizenry that he ripped off so unrepentantly. Here’s hoping that Marty can re-connect aesthetically with the human race in 2014 while documentarians the world over continue their quest for truth, justice and discovery.

(I found out my choice for best feature documentary Oscar–Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square”–did win that prize at the recent awards show of the International Documentary Association, so congrats. At the same event the great Alex Gibney, who made “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “The Armstrong Lie” among his over two dozen directorial eforts, won the IDA’s annual Lifetime Acheivement award).

Here’s a list of Academy Award-winning feature documentaries starting with Michael Wadleigh’s great Woodstock film 43 years ago:

1971—The Hellstrom Chronicle
1973—The Great American Cowboy
1974—Hearts and Minds
1975—The Man Who Skied Down Everest
1976—Harlan County, USA
1977—Who Are the DeBolts?
1978—Scared Straight
1979—Best Boy
1980—From Mao to Mozart
1982—Just Another Missing Kid
1983—He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’
1984—The Times of Harvey Milk
1985—Broken Rainbow
1986—Artie Shaw: Time is All I Got and Down and Out in America (tie)
1987—The Ten Year Lunch
1988—Hotel Terminus
1989—Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt
1990—American Dream
1991—In the Shadow of the Stars
1992—The Panama Deception
1993—I Am a Promise
1994—Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
1995—Anne Frank Rembered
1996—When We Were Kings
1997—The Long Way Home
1998—The Last Days
1999—One Day in September
2000—Into the Arms of Strangers
2001—Murder on a Sunday Morning
2002—Bowling for Columbine
2003—The Fog of War
2004—Born into Brothels
2005—March of the Penguins
2006—An Inconvenient Truth
2007—Taxi to the Dark Side
2008—Man on Wire
2009—The Cove
2010—Inside Job
2012—Searching for Sugar Man


  1. I was also quite pleased that “Wolf” did not take home any awards. I haven’t watched “The Act of Killing,” but based on the buzz it has generated, I was quite surprised when it didn’t win. Still, I am sure that “20 Feet from Stardom” is good in its own right, as you said.

    I’ve been avoiding “Gravity” because I thought it must be overrated. But you seemed to appreciate it a lot, so perhaps I should give it a chance?

    1. “Gravity” was amazing to watch but except for the suspense and danger there was not a lot of context there, so I’m not surprised “12 Years” won instead. But “Gravity” is definitely worth checking out. Would still like to see a sci-fi winner for Best Picture one of these days. And yeah, now that the Oscars are over I’m hoping “Wolf” will quickly fade into obscurity…

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