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About forty minutes or so into Morgan Neville’s documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, the audience is played one of rock and roll’s paeans to anarchy, “Gimme Shelter”, except this version is stripped of all accompaniment other than the sound of singer Merry Clayton’s vocals.  Her magnificent, impassioned wails and shrieks sound like a woman who has lived through the nihilism of the world Mick Jagger portrays in his lyrics.  Besides being chilled to the bone by the vocal bombast of this woman possessed, we also instantly realise that the song would never have become the classic it is without Clayton’s contribution, yet how many but the most die-hard music aficionado would know her name, much less what she meant to “Gimme Shelter?”  Such tales are rampant amongst the unsung singing heroines - and heroes - of Twenty Feet from Stardom.

Beginning at the beginning, we meet the former Darlene Wright, a preacher’s daughter (Like many of the subjects here.) who singlehandedly turned backup singing into an art form far removed from the nonstick vanilla days of 1950’s Perry Como tunes.  Darlene Love (As she was later known), along with Jean King and Fanita James, was one of The Blossoms, whose vocal virtuosity allowed them let loose with gospel harmonies for one recording, then copy the more sterile delivery of their Caucasian counterparts for another.  The Blossoms sang background on more songs than any other group with such stars as Elvis Presley, Tom Jones and Marvin Gaye, and were even featured regulars on the 1960s pop showcase, Shindig!.  Love’s was an interesting case in point as someone who did sing lead on some of the best known records in modern music, including the evergreen “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”.  Unfortunately for Ms. Love, her stardom was intricately linked to a brilliant nutjob called Phil Spector, who never gave the singer her due or a proper credit on her own records, thus leaving her in the shadows while his name rode out front over all.  Spector’s machinations caused Love to abandon music altogether; cleaning houses rather than dealing with the frustration and unfairness of the industry, until hearing her own song on an employer’s radio brought her back to her senses.  There are many tales of just-missed fame in Twenty Feet from Stardom.  Often, it’s simply down to bad luck, bad connections, or not having that special star-making quality that clicks with an audience.  We see that with Merry Clayton, who made a good run at fame in the 1970s, singer Tata Vega and former Ikette, Claudia Linnear.  Occasionally, as with Lisa Fischer, lead backup singer for The Rolling Stones, there are some who are simply happy not to have the spotlight on them and prefer the freedom of coming in and adding their spice to a song:  Fischer’s haunting solo during Sting’s “Hounds of Winter” is something from another world.  We have Judith Hill, the bright young star with everything going for her, including the patronage of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, who can’t seem to wade through the waters of the music business to properly release an album of her own original material.  Hill initially resists becoming a full-time backup singer, but eventually submits in occasionally humiliating fashion (We see you under that wig behind Kylie Minogue.), because, to put it simply, Judith gotta eat.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the documentary is the manner in which these artists cope with their disappointment.  Some leave the industry altogether and abandon singing, others sing solo in small clubs, some are simply happy to go on with their lives lending their vocals to someone else.  The former of these options is sad when you hear the enormous talent of the singers featured.  Oftentimes, it’s clear the background singers are light years ahead of the artists they’re supporting.  Amazingly, there seems to be no evident bitterness or jealousy in such situations.  The generosity these folks share with the bands and producers they work with is almost lawsuit-worthy; the way a group of backup singers can come in and completely transform a piece of music far beyond the composer’s wildest notions without the requirement of a lucrative writing credit.  It’s simply what these folks do.  Their love and kindness towards each other is also heartwarming; when unable to achieve a certain sound, one singer happily recommends another.  Particularly amongst the veterans, there’s a sense of awareness that their voices are a gift meant to share with the world and each other.  Their comradery is bolstered by their many common experiences on the road and in the business.  It’s a family we didn’t know existed.

Besides those excellent clips of Clayton and Fischer, Neville uses some rare live and taped television footage showing the subjects through the ages as well as new interviews.  We also have words from Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting that give insight and testimony to how invaluable these musicians are.  Fischer also pays tribute to her mentor, the late Luther Vandross, who himself began as a background singer, notably providing soul to David Bowie’s funk opus, “Young Americans”.  Bearing in mind that besides the amazing stories of fame and survival, the music’s the thing; Neville kicks off his film with the thrilling, thumping “Slippery People” from the Talking Heads’ concert film, Stop Making Sense, which is one instance where backup singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt are elevated to co-leads, actively dancing and trading vocals next to David Byrne at the front of the stage.  Those well-placed moments provide even more spark and fireworks to Twenty Feet from Stardom’s already compelling subject matter; the ultimate insiders’ look at what it’s like to be that close to fame and still find it elusive.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

June 14th, 2013

 

 

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Photos

(Stills Courtesy of  The Weinstein Company)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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