20 Feet From Stardom Movie Review

Featuring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, The Waters
Director: Morgan Neville
Website: twentyfeetfromstardom.com/
Australian release date: Perth Lotterywest Film Festival 2013-14:
Somerville (9–15 Dec, 8pm);
Joondalup Pines (17–22 Dec, 8pm)

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Illuminating, enthralling, incredibly moving – GO!

The film opens with Lou’s Walk On The Wild Side, the chorus of “coloured girls” going “doo-da-doo-da-doo-da-doo-da-doo” brought right up in the mix as the song ends, pressing in from all sides as if spirited through the dark pines that enclose the Somerville outdoor cinema. It’s a perfect choice of music and a nice touch to promote the backup vocals to the forefront. Tonight, the spotlight is on those who have spent their careers outside it. Tonight, they are the stars.

We learn that once there were only white female backup vocalists who read their parts off music sheets. These girls were professional, hit the notes, knew their stuff – but were limited to the lines they were fed, and the sound they put out was inevitably twee. When the black backup singers emerged, they changed everything. No more music sheets. They sang straight from the heart, working intuitively with gospel-derived harmonies (many were the daughters of preachers). Pop music had discovered its soul!

None of the backing singers featured are household names: Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear of The Ikettes (o my lawd, were those gals hot!) and Merry Clayton to name three, all ‘unknowns’ who are legends within the music industry, acknowledged as soaring talents up with the likes of Aretha Franklin. You might not have heard of them, but you’ll have heard the songs they transformed.

Such as the towering classic by The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter – surely, one of the greatest songs in rock history. Jagger’s recounting of how Merry Clayton came to be singing on the track – and Merry’s recollections of the recording – are fascinating highlights of this always rivetting film. Heavily pregnant, hair in rollers, woken by a phone call in the early hours of the morning when The Stones decided the song needed a female backing vocal, poor Merry rolled up to the studio without any idea of her role, and not even sure of who the band were. Taken aback at the lyrical content – “rape, murder, is just a shot away, is just a shot away” – she stepped up to the mike nevertheless and did her best to interpret some vague instructions from Jagger and co. They were pleased, so she thought to herself, they ain’t seen nothing yet, and really let go next time around. Put the song on loud and concentrate on her vocal in the second verse if you need reminding of how extraordinary it is. Jagger wryly remarks that they never really knew how all-night recording sessions would stack up next day, but that in this instance “it sounded pretty good.” !!!

The question as to why these prodigiously gifted vocalists didn’t traverse those few feet to individual stardom is tackled at length by the girls themselves, stars like Jagger, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting, and other industry luminaries. The reasons are complex and in some senses unknowable, but a comment from one of the backup singers speaks volumes and will never be more relevant than today: “For me singing is for sharing, not competing.”

X-factor, Idol and the like be damned.

I could rave on and on, but I’ll cut to the chase. I’m a rock fanatic and I love rockumentaries (hmmm, sounds like a personal intro at a 12 step program). Of all the rockumentaries I’ve seen, which are very many, 25 Feet From Stardom has to be at the top of the pile.

Actually, to categorise this delightful, joyous, moving and illuminating doco as a rockumentary is to diminish its scope. To be sure, rock and pop music, particularly of the 60s and 70s, is the context here, but the focus is the enthralling and sometimes heartbreaking individual stories of the African-American backup singers whose careers were spent harmonising their hearts out behind centre-stage, told in their own words and augmented by old performance clips and insightful commentary from industry insiders. And the sense of a wrong finally made right, of overdue and grateful acknowledgement of the massive genre-defining musical contribution of these uncelebrated talents, affords the film an importance that sets it apart.

This recognition of the great backup singers as integral to the musical sound, spirit and and soul of an era that, sadly, seems to be slipping away into history, comes just in time. As one of the interviewees remarks, the demand for specialist backup singers is minimal today, partly due to changing musical styles, partly due to time and money-saving technology that enables sound engineers to “tune” mediocre vocalists to pitch. Arrrrggghhh!

Catch this treasure of a flick at the Somerville or Joondalup before the season ends. The audience last night walked out beaming. So will you. I promise.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

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