20 Feet From Stardom

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/16/13 10:56:22

"Folks who deserve to be up front."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: I kind of wish "Twenty Feet from Stardom" hadn't just come out and said that the story of backup singers is the evolution of popular music over the last fifty years, from gospel-trained black voices pushing stiff WASPs out of the spotlight to hyper-layered multitrack recording creating technical perfection at the cost of spontaneity. Oh, it tracks, right down to Phil Spector being a great producer but a human turd, but I was feeling so good about having figured that out myself a few minutes earlier. And while someone who actually knows something about music may disagree with this thesis, they'd be hard-pressed not to enjoy the stories of the talented ladies (mostly) used to illustrate it.

They include Darlene Love, who as part of The Blossoms was one of the first groups of black background singers in the studios, and who has gone through seemingly every possible up and down since then. There's Dr. Mable John, now a minister, and Claudia Lennear, a sex symbol back when she performed behind Ike & Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones. Lisa Fischer and Tata Vega are tremendously talented vocalists who flirted with solo careers but may have found their niche in harmonizing. And then there's Judith Hill, who was to have her big break on Michael Jackson's "This Is It" tour and is now weighing the benefits of steady work as a back-up singer and how it could keep people from thinking of her as a solo artist.

The business of music, after all, is a capricious thing, and the movie is filled with stories of people either missing their windows for a solo career - which, especially if you're an African-American woman from a working-class background like most of the film's subjects, can be vanishingly small - or having their ambitions be, by all appearances, actively thwarted. Director Morgan Neville does well to track that with the evolution of the music business, but he also doesn't make it so specific to that one industry; the subjects frequently talk about it in pragmatic enough terms that anybody who has ever felt stuck in a dead-end job or seen what they do automated is going to understand where they're coming from.

That is, happily, not the entirety of the film; as much as there are stories of ambition, Neville also spends a great deal of time examining why singing backup is itself a noble and important profession. There's talk of how it replicates the call-and-response of gospel songs in church, and how the backup singers are the one singing the song's "hook", the part that people often remember even better than the lead vocal. Both the subjects themselves and an impressive collection of the artists they support - Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, and others - do their best to explain, and there are a fair number of clips (and some new performances) to demonstrate. Neville breaks up the talking heads a little with graphics and nifty imagery (a flock of birds is, believe it or not, the perfect symbol for what the singers do), but mostly he lets the group speak (or sing) for themselves.

And they've got material for some great show & tell. It's kind of amazing to compare Lisa Fischer as she is now and as she was when attempting a solo career in the 1980s - she looks relieved to not be squeezed into tight outfits and to be able to concentrate on what she does best. Claudia Lennear's story doesn't quite end the way one might hope, but she's still around and comparing her now and then gives the audience something interesting to think about. Judith Hill is young enough that her story is just beginning, but she's already got some interesting anecdotes. And Darlene Love.. Man, there's a part of her story that involves hearing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the radio that I think would have killed a lot of lesser people, and it's only one of the stories she can tell about a fifty-year career that a lot of people might have avoided discussing.

Not to slight the other singers, especially Fisher and Hill, but Love becomes the star of this movie, and so it's only fitting that the credits role over her singing lead and Bruce Springsteen backing her up. It would be neat if there was more of this - think of how great the songs in "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" were - but like the rest of the movie, it's a pretty good way of getting some talented and overlooked folks up front.

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