Sunday, July 7, 2013

Movie Review: "20 Feet from Stardom"

What makes a song memorable to you? While there isn't one solitary factor—it could be a classic guitar or saxophone riff, amazingly poetic lyrics, or a can't-stop-singing-it refrain—one thing that nearly always captures me is the harmonies, the background vocals. Whether it's the "sock it to me-sock it to me-sock it to me" of Aretha Franklin's Respect, the "do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do" of Lou Reed's Take a Walk on the Wild Side, or Oleta Adams' soulful harmonizing during Tears For Fears' Woman in Chains, those and other similar moments keep songs stuck in my head—and make them fun to sing along with.

Except for rare occasions, we don't really think about the unsung heroes singing in the background. Who are these people, and did they choose a life behind the spotlight, or is this what they wound up with? These are the questions answered by the brilliant, engaging, and entertaining documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.

The film looks at background singers from the earliest days of rock and roll—particularly Darlene Love, who, with The Blossoms, was the first group of African-American background singers, whose sound everyone wanted to emulate—through current background singers. While director Morgan Neville shares viewpoints and ideas and inspirations from recording artists like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Mick Jagger, as well as musical experts and industry professionals, this is a film about those in the background.

Love, an annual fixture with her singing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on David Letterman's show every year since 1986, is one of the five singers prominently featured in the movie. Love spent years under Phil Spector's management, and actually recorded a number of hits, only to find her voice was being used for other singers. The film also focuses on Merry Clayton, who most notably performed a duet with Mick Jagger on the Stones' Gimme Shelter (and who also had a minor hit with the song Yes in 1988, from the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing); 1970s background singer Claudia Lennear; Lisa Fischer, a Grammy-award winning singer in her own right, who is considered one of the best background singers in the industry; and Judith Hill, a background singer for Michael Jackson who rose to prominence when she sang at the singer's memorial service, and who was on The Voice earlier this year.

As a huge music fan, I absolutely loved this film, because it gave you the opportunity to see those whose voices I recognize but whose names and faces have not been known to me. You get to see the triumphs, the appreciation from the singers they work with (and the renown that these artists often give them on stage), and you also see the downside of perhaps being more talented than many artists out there yet never getting the chance for that big break. And in some cases, the breaks come, but these singers either didn't know how to handle them or didn't manage them well.

If you like music and like to immerse yourself in the inner workings of the industry, definitely see 20 Feet from Stardom. It gives you the exhilaration you get from a good movie, plus you get to hear some great music and some terrific stories. Once you see it, you'll think more about those people whose names don't show up on the record, or don't get mentioned by the DJ, but make the songs you like more memorable.

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