Saturday, March 22, 2014

Review: Twenty Feet from Stardom

I remember thinking when it came out that I'd wanted to see this, but it wasn't until it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature that I finally got around to watching Twenty Feet from Stardom.

This film literally shines the spotlight on the back-up singers of the hits for the past 50 years, and it's revelatory. You will not believe how many of these voices you know intimately from songs fronted by performers ranging from Gene Autry to the Rolling Stones to Sting to Nine Inch Nails.

I don't think it escapes anyone's notice that the primary front-line vocalists are white men and the back-up singers are black women. One of the wonderful choices the director made at the beginning of the film is to blot out the faces of the stars on the album covers so we finally take the time to notice the various "ettes" behind them. What makes it clear is these women aren't diminutive. They are divas and forces to be reckoned with.

The story of the vocals on Gimme Shelter is particularly eye-opening. Merry Clayton, pregnant and home asleep, is awakened and told she needs to come to the studio to do some vocals for "The Rolling Somethings." She shows up in curlers, as both she and Mick Jagger remember, and in three takes, screams out "Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away." Then goes home to bed. In this great video interview in the NY Times, Clayton explains that she was just looking to go back to sleep. She also prods the director to reveal the real reason the producer wanted to make the film.

Another of the featured singers, Lisa Fischer, has been touring with the Rolling Stones since 1989, doing this very vocal. Although she has won a Grammy for a solo R&B performance, the solo career never really came to fruition, and she seems at peace with her role in the background.

It's much harder for others, and neither peace nor success is easy to come by. Darlene Love, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 ("And about time, too," Bette Midler says, introducing her), was royally screwed over by Phil Spector as she sought to be recognized as a performer in her own right. Watching the film gave new insight into her performance accepting the Oscar, as she sang "I sing because I'm happy. I sing because I'm free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He's watching me." He's not the only one at this point. And about time, too.

I can't recommend this film highly enough.



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

For about 50 years I've said that when I grow up I want to be a black back-up singer. That of course never happened but I'm so glad this movie was made and can't wait to see it.

piman said...

This is a great movie. I know several very good musicians. The very large step from being a musician to a star is a random act that depends on luck and happenstance....

See the movie!