' ' Cinema Romantico: 20 Feet From Stardom

Monday, August 05, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom

Among the most famous backing passages in music history are the far-out “doo doo doo doos” on Lou Reed’s seminal “Walk on the Wild Side.” Ah, but who sings those “doo doo doo doos”? Well, Lou Reed tells us right before they get sung. “All the colored girls go…” It’s a troubling passage, isn’t it? It’s that passage you momentarily, conveniently stop singing to when you’re singing along to “Walk on the Wild Side” in the car. But let Janice Pendarvis, a noted backup singer of David Bowie and others, explain what she thinks it means: “The fact that there’s a power to these women that stand on stage and sing with the guys.”

Pendarvis’s breakdown of that infamous and uncomfortable line suggests that perhaps its content is not so cut and dried, and that beneath the line lies a whole world waiting to be discovered. That is the world of Morgan Neville’s documentary, “20 Feet To Stardom”, a film about a group of ultra-talented black women – and they are mostly black – that have sung and still do sing backup to big-name bands, despite receiving little to no mainstream credit, making the industry move and groove. It is, at turns, funny, bracing, rousing, and sad, and about so much more than merely its surface subject matter. It is one of the best films of the year.

The film moves swiftly through the decades, from the 50’s to the 60’s to the 70’s and so on, up through now, recounting their triumphs and failures, and the remarkability of how those two so often coincide. Consider the great Darlene Love, recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the striking singer of the influential girl group The Blossoms who landed a #1 hit in 1962. Well, actually she didn’t. She sang a song that landed a #1 hit in 1962 – “He’s a Rebel” – but Phil Spector, ever the slick horse’s ass, went straight Milli Vanilli years before that was a thing and passed the credit from Love to The Crystals who never actually sang a note of it.

Merry Clayton, in one of the film's most triumphant moments (and one of rock music's most triumphant moments), is summoned to a studio late at night to step up and take the part on "Gimme Shelter" opposite Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones. She breathes fire. But it's not long after she is recruited by Lynyrd Skynyrd to offer vocal support on their infamous southern man screed "Sweet Home Alabama." Many of these singers, we learn, were initially schooled in vocals through church choir, the call and response of gospel. I can only imagine a hella talented black woman being forced to stand in the shadows and preach the virtues of Dixie required Biblical patience.

Patience, as they say, is a virtue, and necessary when night after night the spotlight is not yours and your contributions are generally unheralded. Can you cope in that specific role? It's difficult, as the film demonstrates, when the spotlight is so close and seemingly just within the reach. Lisa Fischer, the singer with the voice all the stars giving interviews drool over, goes it alone and wins a Grammy. Eventually, though, she fades back into obscurity.

Human beings are instinctively programmed to just want more, whatever the situation, and that makes inner peace a difficult proposition. It's these ideas that set "20 Feet From Stardom" apart from your typical rock 'n' roll fables that chronicle a rise, a fall and redemption. On the contrary, this is a story of struggle, an ongoing one, but a noble one. It continues today, auto tune and production tricks generating perfect pitch and backing choirs on a whim, leaving the old school guard unwanted and unloved.

The notion of the auto tune, however, goes beyond taking money off the table and speaks to an inauthenticity, and I don't just mean in regards to the music itself. So much of this film is about self-discovery and self-knowledge, about these singers carving out a place for themselves on that stage and off to the side. Their moments at center stage are rare and while they are gratifying they don't seem to bring any sort of eternal satisfaction.

Delicately, subtly, "20 Feet From Stardom" reveals itself as a sort of spiritual quest, finding harmony not only with the star on the lead mic but within yourself. And all of that, I think, goes back to "Walk on the Wild Side." The line preceding it is less than ideal - insulting, really - but the singers, with a perspective we would all be lucky to possess, look past that and manage to find genuine beauty in their part.

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