20 FEET FROM STARDOM Review: Don’t I Know You From Somewhere?
I recently watched an episode of The Colbert Report where, after much humor, host Stephen Colbert welcomed Robin Thicke to the stage so the singer could perform his 2013 summertime hit, “Blurred Lines.” The song, while fun, is the musical equivalent of cheese puffs: light and airy and tasty at the time, but ultimately forgettable and possibly detrimental to your health if consumed in excess.
The song was definitely performed live and the performance was entertaining, but something I noted at the time was that the backup singers did not appear to be singing at all. In fact, once they left their microphones and started writhing around Thicke onstage, it was clear that they were there for nothing more than to serve as eye candy – effective eye candy, mind you, but eye candy nonetheless. And that’s okay. Soulless, superficial music can get by with soulless, superficial backup singers. But deep, rich, soulful music – music that stays with you for decades, not just a season – needs deep, rich, soulful backup singers just as much, if not more so, than any instrument in the band.
20 Feet From Stardom, its title a reference to the distance between the background and the spotlight, is a documentary that not only looks at the history and importance of the background singer in popular music from the 1960s to today, it also looks at the career arcs of several background singers, past and present. You might or might not recognize their names, but the people they’ve sung with – and the songs they’ve performed on – will grab you by your earbuds.
At the start of the film, the genesis of the modern-day backup singer is traced back to a female trio known as The Blossoms, who were part of producer Phil Spector‘s stable of stars and an integral part of what would become the producer’s legendary “Wall of Sound.” The trio, led by Darlene Love, were like nothing the music industry had heard before. Where background singers before them had been white harmonists who provided simple background melodies in support of lead singers like Perry Como, the all-black, all-girl Blossoms brought gospel-infused harmonies and power-from-the-core soul to every lyric they sang.
This talent and success put them … their voices … their sound in high demand, which opened the door for others to follow for decades to come, including Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, The Waters Family, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, and others. And don’t worry if you don’t know those names, because you certainly know the names of the superstars who have clamored to secure their talents: Bette Midler. Sting. Stevie Wonder. Elvis Presley. Bruce Springsteen. The Rolling Stones. There is also a long line of other industry professionals ready to praise these vocalists for their contributions to the industry and history of music. But those contributions haven’t come without personal and professional sacrifice, nor has that sacrifice always come willingly.
20 Feet From Stardom is simply sparkling. It plays like a band performing one large piece of music – a rock opera of sorts – where each instrument (story line) is played by a musician (subject), and each is both unique unto itself yet critically interconnected to the work and group as a whole.
The drumbeat – that critical backbone to any piece of music – is the history lesson the film offers. Because Love is the first of the modern-day backup singers, and because of her subsequent fame (not only as a solo artist, but also as an actress in the Lethal Weapon series of films), hers is the most interesting story, but also the one with the most familiarity. Still, and despite my lifelong fandom of the Wall of Sound, there were a few things I learned that have renewed my … disliking … of Spector, and have given me cause to question the actions of the creators of the Philly Sound, Gamble and Huff. The film is wise, though, not to dwell on Love and her notoriety. It spreads the history lesson proportionally among its other subjects, most interestingly Fischer, whose path to today is just as compelling (albeit less dramatic) as Love’s.
In step with the drumbeat is the bass, and just as a bass has ear-catching riffs, the history lesson throughout the film is rich with what I can only call “WOW moments.” These come not only in the appearances by (and praise from) legends like Springsteen and Mick Jagger, but also in those bits of information that keep your jaw dropping. Even though they are, for the most part, matters of public record, I don’t think they are very well known, and to list them here would be akin to listing spoilers. (But I cannot resist, so I will give you only one: Luther Vandross sang backup on David Bowie‘s “Young Americans.” Mind blown.)
On rhythm guitar is the camaraderie of the singers – a camaraderie that spans generations and decades. Despite their successes, whether as a founding member of The Blossoms (Love), or as one of Ike and Tina Turner‘s Ikettes (Lennear), or as one of Ray Charles‘ Raelettes (Clayton), or as so many other titles that came with so many other professional accomplishments, these women belong to a very tight sisterhood.
On lead guitar is the music featured in the film. Not only is each song these women have sung or sung on bigger than the next, their performances as part of those songs is better than you remember. This is a great byproduct of this film. On your average day, it’s easy to overlook Clayton’s performance on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” but when her performance – and the wonderful story behind it – is the focus, you focus on the performance, and you are blown away. It’s like that throughout the film.
On lead vocals? The backup singers. Not only is each one a singer’s singer, each has amazing range and devastating power. Yes, age has muted the maximum levels of the sisterhood’s elder stateswomen, but I argue that they can still belt out a pop hit or hymn with greater force than 99% of the so-called singers the music industry technologically enhances today. The MVP of the group, by a mile and with apologies to Love (who I have adored for decades), is Lisa Fischer. She brings an amazing combination of power, range, and control to every note she sings. If you have the privilege of seeing this film, turn it up when she opens her mouth. You won’t be disappointed.
So who backs-up the backup singers in a film about backup singers? The director, of course, and Morgan Neville does a magnificent job keeping this band in time and in tune. He takes what could have been one extreme of just another installment of VH1’s Behind the Music (informative but shallow), or the other extreme of a Grammys clip package (glossy but empty), and finds the perfect balance between the two. The music and the parade of stars are dazzling, but the history of the overall subject and the stories of the individuals keep you invested. With so many people of such notoriety, and with so many great songs and moments in history, and with so much history to span, Neville could have easily had a running time of twice the remarkably efficient 91 minutes this film rolls.
Neville also strikes a good balance between success and failure. For the backup singer, failure is two-pronged. One prong is the lack of available work. With the subjects in this film, none of this sort of failure is borne as a result of any personal shortcoming, but rather as a result of an industry that values their talent less and less. The other prong is the inability to move those long 20 feet, a phenomenon that is well-explored in the film. These are women with great talent and great personalities … and yet.
If the film is off-key anywhere, it’s in what isn’t there – areas that are barely mentioned, let alone explored. A minor omission (and hopefully I’m entirely wrong that this even exists) is any professional jealousy among the sisterhood. The singers are presented as this great unified force, and I’m certain they are, but there is always ego somewhere when fame and money are around. I struggle to think that these singers weren’t at least a little bit catty towards one another at one time.
The more glaring omission is Motown, about which there is hardly a whisper. When you have a documentary about black backup singers that got their start in the 1960s, how can you not mention the likes of the Supremes (after Diana Ross went diva), the Miracles, or the Pips? Also, there is also no mention of Ronnie Spector, nor of the Ronettes. If Phil Spector is a part of the history this film covers, and if Phil Spector had the incredible influence on Darlene Love’s career and life that he had, surely his lead-singer wife and star of his stable should have gotten a mention. I don’t know if these omissions are for legal or creative reasons, but either way, even a title card mentioning something about their absence should have been included.
Regardless, 20 Feet From Stardom should not be missed. Just as it remembers the history of its subjects, history will remember this film as a significant entry in the field of not just music documentaries, but documentaries as a whole.