Sunday, August 4, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom

Alternate Title:  Singers in the Dark

One sentence synopsis:   Interviewers chronicle the lives and careers of a number of highly accomplished backup singers.

Things Havoc liked:  If you were ever a fan of music from around 1950 to 1990, then chances are you have heard the work of a number of the women in this film, women who are the acknowledged experts and most accomplished performers in the strange, unknown-to-me world of backup singing. Oh I knew what the profession consisted of, like everyone I've seen the women (and men) standing off on the side of the stage, moving in unison and singing choral accompaniments or harmonies with the "main" talent, but I, probably like the majority of you, never quite realized just how much backup singers actually contribute to their songs. Go back and listen to such masterworks as David Bowie's "Young Americans" or the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", and you will find that the backup vocalist serves the way a "featured" or "guest" performer does nowadays, singing nearly half of the lyrics, including most of the ones you actually remember from the songs. "When kids sing along to those songs," says one of these backup singers, "they're singing our part." And often enough they actually are.

20 Feet From Stardom presents the careers of a number of women, particularly Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fisher, all backup vocalists of great stature within their industry, with careers that span four or even five decades. Both through demonstrations of their (flatly incredible) vocal capabilities, and a cavalcade of interviews with established stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, or Mick Jagger, the movie convinces us of their skill, yet the movie is not about the mere fact that these women are not well known, but instead dives into the profession of backup singing as a legitimate, separate profession, equal in difficulty to headlining, and no less important, fulfilling, or renowned. We are shown where backup singers (or at least these backup singers) tend to come from, almost uniformly from gospel singing rooted in old black church music with its line-callback format, and given some idea of just what makes a great backup singer in the first place, the ability to harmonize and adapt one's voice to largely any style or range of music. The skillset, while similar, is not the same as that required for headline or solo singing, and while most of these women are highly proficient singers in their own right, some profess to have no desire to sing by themselves or as the leaders of groups, preferring to sing backup even when offered other chances, and believing their chosen careers to be no less valid or important than those of their leading counterparts.

And what careers they have. 20 feet from Stardom is in many ways a trip back through four decades of music, from the first days of Motown to the climax of the 80s. Merry Clayton, just as an example, sang the backup vocals on everything from Gimme Shelter to Sweet Home Alabama to Feelin' Alright, in between stints with Tom Jones, Bobby Derron, Elvis, Carol King, and of course, becoming a member of Ray Charles' backup group, the Rayettes. Darlene Love, meanwhile, contributed her voice to songs from the Beech Boys, Dionne Warwick, Sonny and Cher, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner (footage of the "Ikettes" dancing in the old Ike and Tina Turner Review is worth the price of admission alone), and on and on and on it goes. Indeed, one of the great astonishments of this movie is just how small a pool major backup singers seem to be drawn from. I'm sure the profession extends well beyond the women presented here, but based on the evidence provided, one good backup singer is able to elevate literally dozens of acts to stardom, and most continue with their starring bands for as long as those bands exist. Lisa Fischer, for instance, has been the Rolling Stones' primary backup singer for twenty-five years. She remains so today.

Of course not every backup singer is content to remain in the shadows. Most made efforts at solo careers here and there, releasing LPs of singles, christmas albums, or even their own work, but almost to a woman, they regard their experience with attempting for stardom negatively. One backup artist, a woman named Tata Vega, explains that her weight (she is a large woman) and image were held against her when center stage in a way they never were bare paces to the side, and all of the women speak of the cutthroat, dirty business that is actual stardom, one that seems to have very little to do with talent and much to do with a willingness to play "the game". Darlene Love, for instance, signed a solo contract with legendary producer and asshole Phil Spector, and then watched in horror as he took songs she recorded and gave them to other groups, piping her voice through the sound system while the designated star lip synched to it. Her efforts to break away from Spector stymied by the incestuous nature of the recording industry, Love simply gave up music for a time, as did many other women whenever the strain of the dirty business that is rock stardom became more than they could bear. Some express regret at having done so. Others say that the experience taught them that they had no real interest in being stars, and preferred their careers as professional backups. After all, says one, more people have heard her voice (given the sheer number of songs she has appeared on) than Elvis.

Things Havoc disliked:  If it sounds as though I've merely been recapping what the movie has to say, rather than offering a criticism of the way it says it so far, there's a reason. The best Documentaries play much like their fictional counterparts, telling a story that is captivating and engaging but simply happens to be true. Last year's incredible Searching for Sugarman is an excellent example of this. 20 Feet From Stardom however seems content simply to drift, haphazardly, from one topic (and one singer) to another, only to double back at seemingly random intervals. We follow Darlene Love's career for a while, then Lisa Fisher's, then back to Love, then someone else, with no real sense of progression or reason to it all. There is no attempt, for instance, to categorize the material by era or genre, showing the evolution of backup singing or how it changed with the different styles of music between the 50s and 80s. We get very little information as to how any of these women got into backup singing, what qualities they had (beyond simply being "good") that allowed them to get those coveted spots behind the Stones or Skynard and not someone else. That the film wishes to draw attention to these women is laudable, but a Documentary exists to inform the audience of a fascinating story, and there is really no story here, other than "these women exist".

Moreover, if there can be said to be a lesson from this movie, it is that backup singing and headline singing are two different disciplines with two different sets of pressures applied, and that the majority of singers cannot transition from one to another, either because they have no interest in doing so, or because the transition is fantastically difficult. I'm prepared to accept that this is indeed true for most, but in actuality there are a large number of leading, major acts in the music business who began their careers as backup singers. Elton John, Phil Collins, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Cher, Pink, Gwen Stefani, all began as backup singers, and all managed to negotiate the transition with apparent success (I am listening to Phil Collins as I write this review). I recognize that these people are exceptional by definition, and that they, unlike the women whose lives are chronicled here, clearly desired careers as music stars above all else. But to simply leave the subject as "the transition cannot be done", as this film does, we are left without any idea of what separated these singers from those, which gives an uncomfortable impression that the filmmakers, having chosen as their subject women who did not become stars, have chosen to pretend that becoming a star is due entirely to politics and backstabbing, and requires no skill at all, only a cutthroat desire to succeed at the expense of others. To an extent, I'm prepared to accept this. But I find it difficult to believe that someone like Whitney Houston owed her solo career to nothing but luck and politics, and not at all to her voice.

Final thoughts:   Ultimately, 20 Feet From Stardom, is not a classic documentary destined to change one's life, but a soft, easy look back at the careers of a number of tremendously talented and accomplished backup singers. The majority of the women in this film are now in their 60s and 70s, and yet to all appearances, they continue to perform with their favorite bands, or for compilation albums and awards shows. One (Love) even found success as a supporting character in the Lethal Weapon movies. The lack of focus and the soft-shoeing of the whole transition question is disappointing, but this film is still worth the watch, particularly if one has any interest at all in how all the music you remember so fondly was put together, and by whom.

Final Score:  6/10

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