20 FEET FROM STARDOM Home Video Review

We hardly notice them, yet it is their voices that are as recognizable as any of the names we could associate with countless hit songs over the past few decades. It is their voices that sing the hooks, that let out those soulful "Ooohhhss" and "Ahhhhhhs" that will get stuck in our heads for days and that we undoubtedly credit to the artist with their name on the cover of the album for taking the time to record themselves. It is a pity really, but it is the nature of the game. It is the nature of the industry in order to preserve that "special" quality that surrounds those we qualify as superstars and go on to sell millions of records. There is a fine line between the talent of a lead singer, a solo artist and those singing back-up, but, as Bruce Springsteen informs us, it is a long walk to the front of the stage and one that isn't the easiest of transitions. There is much in the way of transformation there and it isn't just about being a singer, it is about being an entertainer. At one point Sting brings up American Idol and how the accelerated climb of those auditioning to supposed superstardom makes the quality of their success paper thin. I agree in more than one way, but American Idol and shows like it, while every once in a while hitting the right balance of talent and appeal (Kelly Calrkson, Carrie Underwood), have really proven why it is so difficult for someone to become bigger than themselves, bigger than their talent even and that is the ego and the ability it takes to put ones self on display that is necessary for someone to truly appeal to the masses and not just be a good singer. With 20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville takes us on both a journey and exploration to where back up singers became more than just simple singers, but attitude that embellished the mood and emotion of the songs they were featured on. We are given insight to some of the more seasoned back-up singers in the game, peoples whose voices we've heard numerous times yet never known the face that goes with it as well as those who are in the thick of it right now and the difference between those who enjoy basking in the space where they don't have to worry about the stress that comes with having their name on the marquee and those who are anxious to make the leap from the back to the front of the stage, a leap that doesn't always pan out for reasons that are most of the time just as unknown as the names we come to discover through this film.

Darlene Love doing what she does best in 20 Feet From Stardom.
It is not simply the act of going from singing with a group to singing alone, but it is more the idea and the state of mind one has to be in to make that leap the majority of us would assume all background singers would like to make. We assume they are in that position because they are waiting in the rafters, in that position just before they get their own record deal and become famous on their own terms, for their own songs. Many of them can be attributed to this line of thought, but many likely don't realize the conceptual jump they will have to make when leaving the safety net of their co-workers and letting all the judgement and success ride on how well they perform alone. It is a scary place to be and the film shows how difficult it has been and can be for both those who have struggled all their life to earn a place beside their contemporaries such as Darlene Love and Merry Clayton as well as the latest story of Judith Hill who is a singer/songwriter that sung back-up for Michael Jackson and has seemed to be on the cusp of fame for a few years now. Love and Clayton are heralded as the pioneers of this art form. Their stories are incredible and their voices justify the claims they make about being able to go up against any of those who are now regarded as legends. The way in which they were mistreated by the Phil Spector era, where Spector used their youthful voices to define his sound and then would allow others to take credit for Love's work even going so far as to record original songs for her under her name and then release them under others. It was an endless trap for Love while others were beginning to blossom due to the English rock scene that was all but unavoidable in the 60's. The way they mention people like Robert Plant and Joe Cocker who wanted to sound black, but the only way to capture that sound was to use them and other back-up singers that had invigorated music by being able to evoke a spirit of emotions through melody. That these major artists with sizable budgets allowed them to be themselves and give them all they could was what defined the innovation of rock and roll at the time. It is in these stories that the real highlight of the film can be glimpsed; seeing their faces light up and the history on the screen as they return to recording studios that no doubt hold countless and likely unbelievable memories for each of them.

While it is heartbreaking to see how the lives and talents of people such as Love and Clayton, along with Tata Vega, The Waters and Claudia Lennear. Lennear was an Ikette who was kept under the thumb of Ike Turner and his warped mentality that back up singers were meant to serve no other purpose than being eye candy and playing a role of provoking the males in the audience. The comparison that Lennear and fellow interviewees make about Ike feeling like he was a pimp and his singers, even his wife, were women that worked for him. He would make sure they had a certain look, could walk and dance a certain way and Lennear had all of that. She seems genuine when she says she never wanted or intended to be a sex symbol, despite the fact she posed for Playboy, but more it was just an act of being caught up in the moment and wanting nothing more than to find that place of singular success. Lennear would go on to work Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, and if indications are correct likely had some type of personal relationship with Jagger that is never further inquired upon though the implications alone are enough to realize the legacy and impact these women have left on these major acts we now regard in the highest status. Lennear's is the unfortunate story that ends with her saying thank you and goodnight, because she was tired of seeking the approval of a cheering audience to validate her existence even if the present interviews show her with plenty of regret. It is the middle of the night sessions the Stones have with Clayton that reveal how "Gimme Shelter" came to be that will give you chills and how some back-up singers such as Lisa Fischer, who has been on every Stones tour since 1989, don't mind standing in the background and who don't need to do whatever it takes to be famous, but would rather just sing. To most background singers, Fischer says, just being in that space is the higher calling. Fischer is an incredible talent as Neville allows his camera to land steadily on her and capture the improvisations and range she is able to cover. Her presence exemplifies not only why there are no guarantees in the entertainment industry, but that it is also never a level playing field; that it's not about fairness or talent. Its about circumstance and luck, maybe even destiny, but that the best of people deal with it.

Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer and other back-up singers let their voices be heard.
In more ways than one, 20 Feet From Stardom hits home and allows the curtain to be raised on a world many of us realize exist, but have never thought about the dynamics of how those serving that role operate on a day to day basis and what happens to them when they get older and what they've done their entire life has amounted to little more than watching someone else take all the credit. It is a sad realization that in the music industry today it's become about so many other things that don't have to deal with the actual music. Not only does the documentary open our eyes to this untouched world, but it reminds us of why we all want to sing in the first place, why we all enjoy what music does for our souls and that is in the lyrics, in the melody, in the music and not in the manufactured image or committee artists that appeal in small ways to many and hit zero emotional cores. It is simply about the love of music and that is all, that is why it is so pure and so rewarding. This, as opposed to an episode of Behind the Music, is an unfiltered look at artists who are truly in their profession for the sake of the music. That isn't top say artists like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Mick Jagger are doing this for the wrong reason, but the ego and narcissism required to be that kind of name come with a kind of role to be played that takes some of the purity out of the music and tarnishes it with the business aspect.

Most will recognize Hill either from her duet on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" with Michael Jackson in This Is It or from her stint on The Voice, but despite these countless opportunities for exposure she has somehow been unable to find someone who understands who she is as a person and connect that with people who would like to buy her records. There is still hope for her and after seeing this it will be interesting to see if her career does indeed take off the way her passion indicates she'd like it to. There are countless other little gems of stories that make this film completely captivating, like that of Ray Charles seeing himself as the preacher and the background singers as his choir as many back-up singers find their love of music and singing in the church, the only difference being Ray was singing about sex. The way in which David Bowie would write with his background singers, that included Luther Vandross at one point and how Luther understood the subtleties of the voice and the small things that made it more of a visceral experience. Still, the question lingers why lingers. Why don't we know Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Tata Vega, The Waters or Claudia Lennear? Why are they not household names?  The film doesn't offer a definite answer as many of them have achieved some level of success, but the stigma that the industry felt and still feels to this day that they can only have one major entertainer in each genre leaves us wondering how many other talents have gone unnoticed and undiscovered. How many have fought and sacrificed it all only to become a victim of circumstance or maybe destiny.

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