20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on July 22, 2013 @ tonymacklin.net.

Ohh, ahh.

20 Feet From Stardom is an uplifting, enlightening documentary about backup singers. It probably will change what you hear when you listen to your old favorites.

Anybody who has listened to music on the radio from the '60s up to today has heard the sounds of backup singers. But we may not realize their importance, and we probably don't know their professional and personal stories.

20 Feet From Stardom gives an incisive look into their histories and personalities. At a time where - like so much in our society - mechanization is taking the place of backup singers, it's especially relevant to recognize their worth and historical value.

Near the beginning of the film, we see an early tv clip of Perry Como with four female backup singers. Of course, all are white. The African-American backup singers call them "readers," because they stuck sweetly to reading sheet music. They didn't invest in the music in the same way the African-American females who followed them did.

The African-American backup singers were crucial in the dazzling revolution in popular music. They added feeling and fervor. They were crucial in the very creation of the music.

20 Feet From Stardom focuses on a handful of these spirited women. They share a powerful love of music. As Cindy Mizelle says, "I'm part of the Sisterhood."

At the beginning of the film, Darlene Love [producer Phil Spector changed her name from Darlene Wright] meets with her fellow Blossoms after many years to reminisce.

Love had been the lead singer with the Blossoms on "He's a Rebel." But the exploitative Spector released it with the Crystals credited as singers, even though they had never heard it. It became a huge hit for the Crystals. Ah, the music business.

Eventually Love left Spector and the music business, and cleaned homes for the wealthy. But have no fear, Christmas was coming. Her career was reborn.

Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

Merry Clayton, a former Raelette for Ray Charles, tells two phenomenal stories. One night in LA she was called to a session to backup an English guy she had never heard of. It was Mick Jagger.

Clayton arrived, pregnant, in curlers, and wearing a mink. She was given disturbing lyrics:

"Rape, murder!

It's just a shot away

It's just a shot away"

It became "Gimme Shelter."

Director Morgan Neville took footage of both Jagger and Clayton separately listening to Clayton's passionate performance. The look of admiration on Jagger's face is priceless.

Clayton also tells about her backup experience on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Although she was not morally in tune with it, through her power and talent she made it her own.

Lisa Fischer is shown on stage with Sting. Fischer won a Grammy, but didn't seize the moment fast enough for her second album, and her opportunity disappeared.

Fischer says that she's more comfortable as a backup singer. She has been the lead female on Stones' tours since 1989.

Claudia Lennear, once an Ikette with Ike Turner, appeared in Playboy. She had a special bond with Mick Jagger, who wrote "Brown Sugar" for her. She says, "We used to have so much fun."

She's been out of the business and has taught Spanish for ten years.

29-year old Judith Hill was about to get her big break touring with Michael Jackson, when he died. At the memorial for Michael, Hill gave a memorable performance. She's still doing backup trying to keep active.

Director Morgan wants his film to have uplift, so he avoids conflict and delving into families. But Tata Vega gives a glimpse into the dark side when she says, "If I'd made it....I'd probably have o.d.ed."

The villains in 20 Feet From Stardom are the infamous producer Spector and the system. The system wants just one soul singer, and it is Aretha Franklin. So, scratch Merry Clayton. But the strong women survive the callous system.

In an effort to "blend and mesh," Morgan and his three editors stumble a bit when they move from one singer to another and back. At times they impinge on one another.

Morgan gets meaningful interviews from Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger. Springsteen admiringly says of the backup singers, "They bring a world."

Morgan also employs some great footage. David Bowie - like a gifted faun - sings, "Young Americans." In the final credits, Bruce and Darlene Love sing together with exhilarating effect.

In a way, critics are the backup singers of film.

Occasionally a critic breaks through to direct films. Truffaut and Godard did. So did Paul Schrader and Curtis Hanson.

But basically - like backup singers - critics try to enhance the experience, with full-throated personal involvement and commitment.

In the back row I sit intent on the flickering images on the screen. "It's just a shot away."

20 Feet From Stardom beckons.

I want to sing.

So I do.

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