Judge Erich Asperschlager is 20 tweets from stardom.
"It never is a level playing field…It's not about fairness. It's not…about talent."
It's difficult to imagine rock 'n' roll without backing vocals. Sadly, it's almost as difficult for most music fans to name any of the backing singers who brought depth to hits by the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne and countless others—singers who, despite their talent, their efforts, and their ability to change with the times spent their careers 20 Feet from Stardom.
Facts of the Case
Director Morgan Neville tells the story of background singers from the '50s to today, through interviews, music, archival footage, and studio performances by the unsung singers who changed pop music.
HD cameras and web streaming services have given documentary filmmakers the ability to highlight people and topics that might not otherwise get any attention. It's great the singers profiled in 20 Feet from Stardom are finally able take center stage. It's just too bad it took this long. The Blu-ray cover might boast the participation of Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Bette Midler, the real stars of this film are the dozens of backing singers interviewed. Although plenty of singers get screentime, director Neville spends the most time on the core group of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Claudia Lennear—all of whom reached the highest heights of popular music without getting the recognition they deserved.
Background singing is the art of blending with others. For many of the singers profiled in 20 Feet from Stardom, that unique talent was learned in church gospel groups. In the '50s, rock music used the sounds of gospel to sell songs about sin, and everyone wanted background performers who could sing with soul. The music industry shifted away from all-white backing vocalists to African American singers like Fanita James, Gloria Jones, and Darlene Love—who, as The Blossoms, were among the first black background singers. It wasn't long before they were being used on songs as diverse as "Monster Mash," "That's Life," "Da Doo Ron Ron," and "He's a Rebel"—the latter of which was credited by producer Phil Spector to another girl group, The Crystals. Spector subjected the under-contract Love to more ghost sessions over the years, hiding her prolific output from the public.
Merry Clayton spent her early career as a "Raelette" backing singer for Ray Charles. Later, she would sing with Joe Cocker and give one of rock's most famous supporting performances as the female voice in the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Clayton describing that session is one of the highlights of the film, both for the powerful isolated audio track and the story she tells about being calling up to sing in the middle of the night, belting out chilling lines about "rape and murder" in pajamas and curlers. Claudia Lennear also began as an "ette"—as one of Ike and Tina Turner's background singer-dancers, before performing with artists including George Harrison and the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger talks in the film about his personal and professional relationship with Lennear, who is rumored to be the inspiration for "Brown Sugar."
Lisa Fischer also sang with the Stones—joining them on several tours to sing Clayton's part in "Gimme Shelter"—and even winning a Grammy-winning for her 1992 album. Although Fischer's solo success is unique among her peers, Fischer isn't the only background artist to record her own album. Lennear, Clayton, and Love all released solo albums, none of which made these veterans household names. It wasn't a matter of talent. These women are every bit as good, if not better, as artists who made it big. Neville makes the case for these amazing performers, not by telling us how great they are but by putting them behind microphones and letting them sing. As fascinating as this oral history of background singers is, the best thing about 20 Feet from Stardom are the performances shot for this film. These women may be decades past their biggest successes, but they are just as stunning now.
20 Feet from Stardom is about a group of artists who never got their due, but it's not a downer. There are pangs of regret here and there, but for the most part the documentary is a celebration. Neville points out how many songs feature singers we never knew before. Now we've met them, and it allows for a new appreciation of old classics. Clayton describing her performance on "Sweet Home Alabama" as a blow for Civil Rights means I'll never listen to that song the same way again. Heck, even the Growing Pains theme song seems more important now that I've met The Waters family.
20 Feet from Stardom has a lot to say about the importance of passion in making art. Background singers sing not for attention but because they love to sing. Not only that, but they practice an art form that is about making sure they don't stand out. That anonymity would be hard for most musicians. As we see in the film, it's not always easy for those who have committed their lives to it. I'm sure all these women and men are grateful to Neville for telling their stories, but even so it's clear they see themselves as a community and not competitors. They live, figuratively and literally, in harmony with each other—a rare thing among artists and one more reason to be inspired by this film.
20 Feet from Stardom hits Blu-ray courtesy of Anchor Bay, with a gorgeous 1.78:1/1080p picture. The modern HD interviews are clean and sharp, the archival footage less so, with dramatically lit, stylish in-studio performances. Those performances are visual highlights as well as showcases for the film's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio—a surprisingly robust mix for a film with so many talking heads. 20 Feet is one of the rare documentaries that benefits from a hi-def release.
20 Feet from Stardom includes the following bonus features:
• "Deleted Scenes" (29:00): These 12 extra scenes feature some of the 50 singers who were interviewed by Neville but didn't make it into the film.
• "Buddy System" (8:52): Unlike the cutthroat world of solo performance, backing singers help each other get work. In this featurette, interviewees talk about their professional friendships and the inherent togetherness of singing with others.
• "Times Talks: Q&A with Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and director Morgan Neville" (29:24): This engaging New York Times Q&A gives 20 Feet's stars a chance to expand on the stories from the film.
At first glance, 20 Feet from Stardom may seem like another niche documentary, but it does something even more impressive than give charismatic performers a place to tell fascinating stories that celebrate a passion for art. It reframes the history of popular music in a way that will change how you listen to songs you've heard hundreds of times before.
Perfect harmony. Not Guilty!
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