So The Lone Ranger finally limped across the finish line this week. This one had a long and torturous development; if it wasn’t for Johnny Depp’s ego, this picture would’ve been crushed under its own bloated budget and script problems ages ago. I was looking forward to giving this one its day in court, until it premiered under a cloud of mockery and derision. The movie sucks and everyone knows that it sucks. Let’s dump it and move on, or at least wait for the DVD.
Also out this weekend is Despicable Me 2. I never saw the original, nor do I have any inclination to, so I’ll be passing on this one as well. Moreover, I’ve had it up to here with the Minions. I can’t recall the last time I saw mascots who were so annoying, infectious, invasive, ugly, toxic, and just plain useless. It’s like Universal found a way to make a cash cow out of an STD.
I really have to choose my films carefully right now. My time is at a premium, and I’m behind schedule enough as it is. With that in mind, I’ve decided to focus my energy on the arthouse scene, turning an eye toward a lesser-known movie that already has a great reputation. In this case, I refer to 20 Feet From Stardom.
To summarize, this is a documentary about backup singers. They’ve been a staple of rock and pop music since the ’60s, and I’ll bet you never gave them a thought. Still, the next time you listen to a song — any song — listen for those background vocals. They’re probably back there, and chances are good that you’ve been singing along with them for years without even realizing it.
The film argues that backup singers have played a vital role in shaping music as we know it. To help make its point, the film interviews several music historians and bona fide music legends. Mick Jagger puts in an appearance, as do Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow (herself a former backup singer), Sting, Bette Midler, etc. The film also throws in archive footage of Ray Charles, David Bowie, Ike and Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, and Michael Jackson to illustrate how much they all depended on and collaborated with their backup singers. Even better, most of these idols appear with some of the backup singers interviewed in the movie.
The film includes interviews from Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, the Waters Family, and many others. This is a collection of the greatest singers you’ve never heard of. You’ve been hearing their voices for so many years without ever knowing it.
If you’ve sung along to “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” then you know Darlene Love. If you ever watched The Lion King, then you’ve heard the Waters Family. If you’ve ever seen or heard the Rolling Stones at any point since 1989, Lisa Fischer is right there with them. The youngest one of the bunch is probably Judith Hill, a former backup singer to Michael Jackson who shot her way to semi-stardom after singing at the King of Pop’s funeral.
(Side note: More recently, Hill appeared as a contestant on “The Voice.” She made it up to the top 8 before an upset elimination knocked her out of the running on May 28th, 2013. Obviously, that would’ve been too recent for the movie to comment on.)
I’m glad the movie provided a background of these singers, because it means that I don’t have to. I could spend a whole ‘nother blog entry on all the history that these ladies represent. It’s a staggering thing to hear how these women helped shape music as we know it and how their incredible experiences changed them.
But here’s a peculiar thing: In case you hadn’t noticed, the interviewees are all black women. More than that, pretty much all of them are preachers’ daughters, or at least grew up in church. In this way, the movie makes the connection between black culture and gospel music. Regarding our backup singers, an analogy is made between a lead singer with backup singers and a preacher with a choir. Moreover, those who sing in a choir have to learn how to blend their voices together in the most effective way, as backup singers do. So naturally, singing in church leads to a skill set that is quite valuable among backup singers.
Granted, I’m sure that there are plenty of white backup singers out there, and several male ones as well. The film mostly ignores them, but that’s probably for the best. It’s far more interesting to hear about how black people were helping to shape rock and roll while the Civil Rights Movement was still underway. And of course, the female aspect is something else entirely.
The filmmakers and interviewees spend a great deal of screen time discussing the “eye candy” part of being a backup singer. The interviewees all talk about how they were supposed to dress, how they were supposed to dance, how important it was to get the men excited, and so on. The film even touches on a shoot that Claudia Lennear did for Playboy in 1974. I might add that Lennear didn’t exactly look too thrilled when the filmmakers brought that up.
Ike Turner is also discussed, for obvious reasons. Together, Ike & Tina Turner were musical revolutionaries, putting on rock/R&B shows like the world had never seen before. A huge part of that came from the Turners’ backup singers (affectionately called “The Ikettes”), who were utilized to their full potential as fantastic singers and dancers. On the other hand, one historian refers to Ike as “a pimp” who demeaned and mistreated the women who worked for him. Quite wisely, the filmmakers decided that nothing more had to be said and let it go at that.
Speaking of which, this movie has an extremely uncomfortable time discussing Phil Spector. The guy was a hugely influential producer, and his famous “Wall of Sound” production technique changed everything for backup singers of the time. In fact, Spector was singlehandedly responsible for blessing several young backup singers with their future careers. The documentary absolutely has to mention him, but you can tell that the filmmakers were trying to mention him as rarely as possible.
Anyway, the question must be asked: If these backup singers are so influential, so talented, and so beloved by everyone they work with, why don’t they have a solo career? How is it that no one’s heard of them? Well, the back half of the movie explores a huge variety of possible reasons why.
There are so many factors that determine whether or not a solo act will catch on. There’s market saturation, the tastes of the paying audience, how the artist looks and acts onstage, how the artist gets along with producers, songwriters, executives, etc. There’s one point in the film when Sting is asked what it takes to be a successful solo artist. In response, he basically shrugs his shoulders and says “luck.”
The sad truth is that singing backup and singing lead are totally different. They both require powerful voices and incredible talent, but that’s where the similarities end. With backup, it’s all about determining what the lead artist needs. Backup artists can shift their performances and even their personalities from one act to another. Lead vocalists, on the other hand, have to develop strong personalities of their own and figure out what they need from the backup. That’s a tough transition to make, and it isn’t one that every singer can handle.
Of course, that isn’t even getting started on all the drugs, paparazzi, freeloaders, and other hazards of being a world-famous celebrity. Then again, anonymity has its drawbacks as well. Early in the film, we hear about a song called “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” sung by a pioneering trio of backup singers called The Blossoms. Darlene Love was part of the group and sang lead for this particular single, yet neither she nor the band got any credit for it. The song was instead given to a group called The Crystals, because they were huge celebrities and The Blossoms were a trio of nobodies.
Oh, and did I mention that both groups were produced by Phil Spector? Yeah, he was the guy who made that call.
With all of that said, think about what life and work as a solo artist would be like without all the associated baggage. Imagine the life of a world-class singer, then take away all the money, the politics, the fame, the autotune, the videos, the endorsements, and so on. Take that away, and you know what you’re left with? Music and talent. That’s it. Music and talent.
One of the film’s strongest points is that it portrays backup singing as a return to basics. To a backup singer, music isn’t a competition for who gets the most attention; it’s a collaboration between so many talented people who find ways to harmonize. To these interviewees, sharing their melodious gifts with the world is its own reward.
If the film has any greater point to make, it’s this: Use what talents you have, and use them as best you’re able. Raw talent and sheer determination might not be enough to get you into any Hall of Fame, but that’s okay. You don’t need to be a celebrity to live a happy, successful, incredible life with countless stories to tell. The interviewees of this film are all living proof.
If the film has any fault, it’s in the editing. The whole movie is littered with split-second cuts that were apparently put in without any kind of reason. It’s only a minor complaint, but a jarring one nonetheless.
20 Feet From Stardom is a fascinating look at musical history from a fresh new perspective, and the interviewees are all musical legends with incredible stories to tell. Needless to say, the soundtrack is awesome as well. Music fans of any caliber owe it to themselves to see this movie immediately, by any means necessary. Aspiring musicians, amateur musicians, professional musicians, musical history buffs, and people who just love listening to music will all find something to love here. Even if the subject doesn’t interest you (though I can’t imagine how), this is still a very good documentary that totally deserves your time and money.
Incidentally, why not make it a double-feature with last year’s Searching for Sugar Man?