Jun 18, 2013
20 Feet From Stardom
This documentary by Morgan Neville is a very enjoyable, but bittersweet, heartbreaking film about the talented singers who do backup for more famous artists. It features a lot of fantastic music and showcases the powerhouse voices of artists like Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, The Waters, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, and Tata Vega, who have sung behind the big names in music, mostly in obscurity, bringing power and feeling to recordings and live concerts. The film is a good pop music history lesson, as well as a poignant exploration of what separates talent from fame. As is enormously clear today, in the age of auto tune and televised talent contests, it is not necessary to be talented to be famous; and to judge from the otherworldly gifts of some of these singers, sheer talent is, sadly, not always enough.
What is needed remains daunting and ineffable: a combination of drive, ambition, connections, circumstances, luck, looks, business acumen, and taste. Singers may have incredible voices, but if they don't have access to hit songs, or canny, decent producers (not sleazebags like Phil Spector), their voices won't take them as far as they deserve. There are also those who prefer not to be in the spotlight, but the majority need to express themselves and share their gifts with the world at the front of the stage, and that is where disappointment comes in.
At the dawn of American pop music, back up singers were all white and perky, quite harmonious, but rather soulless. Then The Blossoms, the first trio of black backup singers, appeared, commandeered by Darlene Love, and everything changed. Think of Perry Como and his three insipid blondes, and then think of Ray Charles and the Raelettes, or Ike and Tina Turner's miniskirt-wielding backup singers, and you'll get the idea. Love, who was born to be a lead singer, was outrageously indentured to Phil Spector. He used her and her colleagues' vocals to give them to other groups to lip-synch. That Love was belatedly inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 barely rights those terrible wrongs. At some point she was cleaning houses. This is how bitter, unfair and ungrateful the music business can be.
There is a connection between gospel singing and the careers of backup artists. Most of them were the children of pastors and they sang, heavenly, in church. And what are backup singers if not a righteous choir of call and response?
Apparently, Rock and Roll saved the day by finding use for these talents, and artists like the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, U2, Sting, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, all brought these ladies in to add some sexiness and power to their shows. And boy, did they ever. Just to hear Lisa Fischer's soaring solo at a Sting concert is worth the price of admission. The night I saw the movie, the audience burst into applause. The sound of these voices lifts the spirit, but their tales of struggle are very sad.