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Music Takes Center Stage In Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

Egyptian singer-songwriter Ramy Essam, in the heady early days at Tahrir Square in 2011.
Mark LeVine
Courtesy of the artist
Egyptian singer-songwriter Ramy Essam, in the heady early days at Tahrir Square in 2011.

Three documentaries up for Academy Awards Sunday place musicians front and center — and trace the profound impact that music-making has on the trajectories of their lives.

All three films are stunning and as distinctive as the personalities they illuminate: the 109-year-old Holocaust survivor and pianist profiled in the short The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life; the songwriter turned revolutionary of The Square; and the backup singers who step forward in 20 Feet from Stardom.

As it happens, Alice Herz-Sommer, the ebullient pianist who is the subject of director Malcolm Clark and producer Nick Reed's profoundly moving short The Lady in Number 6, died Sunday at the age of 110. Classical aficionados will be stunned to learn just how prodigiously talented this Prague-born artist was in her prime. Born in 1903 to a family who was friendly with both Kafka and Mahler, Herz-Sommer was a student of Artur Schnabel. Both her mother and her husband died in Auschwitz; she and her son, Raphael, were sent off to the infamous Terezín camp.

Herz-Sommer recalls in the film that while in Terezín, she played more than 100 concerts, including the complete Chopin etudes from memory. Her son, who grew up to be a respected professional cellist, was one of the children who performed in fellow prisoner Hans Krása's opera Brundibár at Terezin. Music by composers like Bach and Beethoven sustained her — and perhaps nourished her incredible optimism and sublime grace, even to the point of forgiving the unforgivable. We learn that one of her oft-repeated phrases was "Music saved my life and music saves me still."

Politics, fear and music intersect in a very different way in Jehane Noujaim's extraordinary Al midan (The Square), a chronicle of the Egyptian revolution and the country's continuing struggles, beginning at the movement's roots at Tahrir Square in early 2011 through mid-2013. The film is being shown on both official and illegal platforms all around the world right now. This week, for example, it's on large screens in the streets of Kiev.

Though he isn't one of the primary subjects of Noujaim's film, songwriter Ramy Essam is prominently featured in her account. A little-known singer and guitarist before the revolution, the 23-year-old quickly became one of the uprising's most familiar voices and faces, both inside and outside Egypt. In March 2011, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep visited Essam in Cairo; last summer, the British label World Music Network released a whole disc of his music.

In The Square, we see that Essam's activism and popularity have come at a significant price. A scene of the singer ebulliently leading the protesters when then-President Hosni Mubarak stepped down shifts to the shock of what happened a few weeks later. We see Essam lying on a bed, his back covered with welts and open cuts. He says he was arrested by soldiers and hired thugs, who took him to the National Museum and tortured him. (Inskeep's report includes more information about the attack on Essam.) But in short order, there is Essam in front of the crowds again, singing sardonically, "When all your work is for nothing, because only the corrupt get ahead ... because your country is a 'democracy.'" And the crowd is singing, word for word, right along with him.

The third documentary is much more explicitly focused on musicians and the business of music — but it's heartbreaking in its own way. 20 Feet from Stardom pays loving and far overdue tribute to a number of fantastically talented backup singers, from the legendary Darlene Love to 29-year-old Judith Hill, who's been spending the past few years trying to break out on her own. These are, as one of the singers puts it, the ones who "sing the hooks" that make countless tunes so iconic, from Merry Clayton's appearance on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" to David Bowie's "Young Americans" (which includes Luther Vandross, who also arranged the backup vocals).

But inasmuch as each artist frames her or his struggles to get recognition, 20 Feet doesn't shy away from outlining a larger narrative, pointing out that these backup singers are mostly black and mostly female — and that the sound that the mostly white producers and big-name artists were (and are) seeking very much stems from African-American music. So while 20 Feet from Stardom isn't explicitly political in the way of The Square, it offers its own dose of food for thought.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.