Nobody told me February has only 28 days, so uh…that’s why this blog post is a little late. I did watch Twenty Feet From Stardom (my February choice in my planned 12-Month Documentary Watch Project) last night, which has to count for something. And I’m still thinking about it this morning. That’s definitely a sign that a film has affected me.
I feel like everyone but me has seen Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet From Stardom and I’m late to the party, so for those of you who watched it when it came out in 2014 and cheered when it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary – I think we both know where I’m going with this. This what? I hesitate to call this a review (or to call any of my Documentary Watch Project posts “reviews”) – so call it an After-Party.
Quite simply, this is a documentary about backup singers. And of course, it is so much more than that. It’s a fiery, tearful, rollicking portrayal of a gifted group of artists – mostly women – who have given their lives to music.
I keep imagining that one day I’ll have to convince someone (a friend who avoids documentaries, an acquaintance who’s “not really into music that much,” someone who’s just too busy) to watch this film. I’ll start with the music. How pretty much everything good in the worlds of Pop, R&B, Blues, and Rock and Roll is rooted in the power and glory of gospel. I’ll say, if you love the girl groups of the sixties and Ray Charles and The Rolling Stones and Talking Heads, then you should see this film. And then I’ll realize that’s not what I meant to say at all. What I want to say is, if you’ve ever listened to a song that moved you like being lightning-struck, chances are it’s because of the background vocalists, and here, go watch their stories, watch them sing their hearts out because they deserve your full attention.
I’m talking about:
Merry Clayton telling the story of how, hair in curlers in the middle of the night, she recorded her shattering howl of an aria that made the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” the timeless song it is. How, in her own words, she sang the crap out of “Sweet Home Alabama,” and then went on to record Neil Young’s “Southern Man” with bluesy, life or death gusto.
The Waters Family, sitting around a kitchen table singing an impromptu, a cappella rendition of “Up Where We Belong” and blowing the roof off the house.
Darlene Love talking about how she’s actually the signature vocalist for not just one but two songs that were attributed to The Crystals (“He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure The Boy I Love”).
Lisa Fischer, whose voice surely is powerful enough to be heard in Interstellar space.
You’ve never heard of any of these singers? I hadn’t either, but we’ve all heard them. In the background. What a joy that this film grabbed ahold of the spotlight and aimed it away from the foreground, if only for a while.
Twenty Feet From Stardom is a celebration of music, but of course like any industry it’s about work and survival. The struggle for fame, and failure despite extraordinary talent. Claudia Lennear, who performed with practically everybody and danced like nobody’s business right next to Tina Turner for years, is now a Spanish teacher (and yes, who’s to say that’s not as, or more, meaningful). Darlene Love was finally inducted into the Music Hall of Fame in 2011, but so many of the background singers portrayed here have dreams of making it big by going out on their own. There are the solo albums with rave reviews and little commercial success. I have to say I admired Lisa Fischer so much because she can blend her voice into a backup group as is necessary, but still assert her own musical identity. And, if there’s just a hint of melancholy about her, she carries on.
I think that’s the most difficult part of being an artist, and it’s my takeaway from this film. So many of us who want to do art – be it music, writing, painting, photography, sculpture, dance – so many of us are never going to “make it.” We will have day jobs in the background for all our lives. But we keep going, because it’s worth it.
In Twenty Feet From Stardom, there’s a moment I almost missed, when the singer Táta Vega says, softly and humbly, I just loved music is all. It’s all I wanted to do.
Read other Posts in my 2015 Documentary Watch Project
Stage photo from Unsplash