20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

by Matt Piucci20 Feet from Stardom

It wasn’t fair. Not for a moment. I walked into the theater with my objectivity intact, thinking I would maintain a cool cynic’s approach to the film, 20 Feet from Stardom. That lasted about thirty seconds. Subject matter is everything in a documentary and a wise director picks a great story. My aforementioned objectivity was steamrolled, freight-trained and bum rushed. I was hooked once the credits started over the beautiful and magical song by the late Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side”, with its politically incorrect refrain “and the colored girls go ‘doo doo doo’ ”. This movie is a wonderful tribute to these amazing singers who perform in the background and is my favorite documentary of the year. But even documentaries need a protagonist, and in this case, despite the lack of name recognition, the title implies that face belongs to the amazing Darlene Love, who defines and transcends the genre.

One of the first to chime in is the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen. I’m not sure if he coined the title phrase, but he does articulate that the twenty-foot trip from the back to the front of the stage is extremely “complicated”. The 20 feet from the drum riser to the center vocal mike may as well be a million miles, although as Bruce says, the trip is mainly conceptual. Massive ego, inhuman drive and persistence are all requirements that are even more necessary than talent. But as yin is to yang, those up front singers often need the validation, confirmation and assent that the background singers bring.

“Nothing new under the sun”; whether it was the Romans who coined this phrase, or Aristotle the Greek, it is certainly true. And who are these singers? They are the Greek chorus and the congregation in the atavistic play between testifier/preacher and his congregation. A little history is in order.

It all begins with the Blossoms, one of the very first groups of female non-white background singers to record extensively. And the main singer in that trio was a very young Darlene Love whose youth and powerhouse delivery made the Blossoms an indispensable commodity to the producers of the day, once the barrier had been broken. Prior to about 1960, virtually all of the recording industry was white, and particularly the background singers. They were in the mold of the Andrews Sisters, non- threatening and strictly readers of music. What the African Americans, who were all raised in the call and response traditions of their church, brought to the table was spontaneity and performance, not just reading the notes. Once those cats were out of the bag, so to speak, there was no turning back. Although anonymous, the voices became ubiquitous, working with everyone from James Brown to Buck Owens

The authenticity that these amazing singers bring, the validation, the affirmation, is a quality that some cynical musicians would use to bolster their own credibility. By now, everyone knows the ridiculously disproportional contributions that Black Americans have made to our popular culture, especially in music. Unfortunately, the anonymity had its drawbacks as these people were often used by unscrupulous producers. The most notable was the murderer / groundbreaking producer Phil Spector, whose “wall of sound” became famous. Darlene Love’s voice was sold to the public as someone else’s on more than one occasion. Ms. Love had the misfortune of hearing her voice on the radio, the vocal she recorded while the touring Crystals were out on the road, playing live shows and even lip synching TV appearances to her voice. She was betrayed again years later by the same skunk when Spector bought her contract without her knowledge. Fortunately, after years of being screwed, her career took off at age 40.

The darker aspects of this process are also explored here, and the issues are not just those of racism, but sexism as well. Its a tired but true cliché that white musicians, for example Sting or Paul Simon, will hire black singers to give them a something they do not have- a purchased credibility. Ike Turner, although a black musical pioneer who is on the very first acknowledged rock recording (Rocket 88, 1951), was even worse than the white musicians. He treated Tina and the Ikettes as if he were their pimp and they his whores. Female sexual power was co-opted here and although the audience got it unadulterated, as Tina and the Ikettes were an atomic bomb of raw sexuality, they were oppressed off stage by Ike the self-proclaimed Pimp. The behavior is not much different than the controlling oppression of Phil Spector, who ultimately was proved to be contemptuous of women in the worst way by a court of law.Darlene Love

Rock musicians such as Joe Cocker and David Bowie, however, were better in their treatment of these singers as they, the singers, were given the freedom to create as they never had before. And what music they created! “Gimme Shelter” is one of the quintessential Rolling Stones tunes but it would simply not be the same without Merry Clayton’s jaw dropping shrieks of “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away.” It remains one of the finest vocal performances in rock music and still sends chills down my spine, especially when the vocal is played solo, as it is in this film. Ms. Clayton even sings on the painfully uncomfortable “Sweet Home Alabama” by hillbilly southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, with its apologist lyrics about southern racism; a truly subversive move by her. Unfortunately, although she is probably the single most talented woman in the sea of amazing singers presented in the film, when she tried to move those twenty feet, and for reasons that no one can explain, she did not become a star.

The decision to do this job does have its hazards; it is utterly dependent upon the capricious whims of current musical trends. All businesses have downsized in the modern rapacious corporate-driven world and music is no exception. To quote LA session background singer David Lasley, “Is there a way out to leave this life without dying of heartbreak? Is it the biggest Jones of all? You get hooked on music, you are fucked.” Indeed.

However, we are not. We get to learn who some of these folks are and we are all the better for it. Go see this wonderful film, the best documentry of 2013.

Post Script- Apparently the Academy agreed with me, and at the Oscar ceremony we were all treated to a few bars of real gospel singing in her acceptance speech by Darlene Love! Now go see it if you have not yet.

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