Thursday, March 6, 2014

'Twenty Feet from Stardom' (2013) directed by Morgan Neville

They sing their hearts out in front of thousands, surrounded by the most famous musicians. They're responsible for some of the most famous hooks of all time; the "do do-do do-dos" on Walk On the Wild Side, the "alllll rights" on Young Americans and that sonic missile  that blasts out of the middle in Gimme Shelter: "RAAAPE, MURDER! It's just a shot away, it's just a shot away!".  Yet despite their voices ringing out of our headphones and speakers every day they're invisible, anonymous and nameless. Twenty Feet From Stardom is going to remedy that; bringing them into the spotlight, exploring their unchronicled lives and trying to work out just what it means to be a backing singer.

Quickly you realise that it's depressing, largely thankless drudgery.  Your job is to melt into the background and present a undistracting vocal performance that's got to be technically excellent, yet devoid of any personality lest you distract the audience from whichever star is vainly gyrating in the spotlight.  They stand gently swaying in unison, the spotlight tantalisingly just out of their reach - the eyes of an arena looking at you, but also through you.

All of the women featured in the film are astonishing singers and each are living out their own miniature melodramas. Best illustrative of the injustice that director Morgan Neville wants to expose is the story of Darlene Love.  She was a Motown fairytale princess; a beautiful and astoundingly talented singer unjustly locked into a contract by sinister Svengali Phil Spector, who credits her wonderful performances to other singers. After suffering years under his fierce whip she quit, her lack of actual credits or royalties leaving her broke - reducing her to cleaning houses.  It was while she was scrubbing shit off some snooty WASP bitch's toilet that she heard the radio down the hall.  She was playing on it, proudly singing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)  - the disc jockey excitedly crediting some bozo with her performance.  

There's some very neat editing in this movie that really rubs salt into these wounds;  one of the best contrasts is showing the radiant Lisa Fischer singing her guts out in front of a huge audience and then cutting to her queuing in a dingy, striplit Fedex branch, ignored - just another face in the crowd.  Neville does a great directorial job in setting up this contrast; picking the most glamorous, hi-saturated pieces of footage from a youthful, beautiful singer with the light of ambition burning in their eyes and then walloping us with the dull, desaturated and miserable reality of their current life.

Understandably these singers have got a bit of a chip on their shoulder about this ill-treatment, the image of exploited black women used and cast aside by rich white musicians is obviously a sympathetic one.  This contrast between the superstars and their backup comprises the meat of the film: an autopsy on the crucial difference between a successful musician and an unsuccessful one.  Neville interviews luminaries like Mick Jagger, Sting and Stevie Wonder, all of whom have an aura of guilt to them as they can't help but compare their own megabucks lifestyles to these forgotten women whom they know all too well are more technically talented than they are. 

The key word there, I think, is 'technically'. There's an intangible 'it' in music that some people possess and some just don't. It's a slippery little fish, impossible to define and often difficult even to detect. David Bowie has 'it', Bette Midler has 'it', Ray Charles has 'it' - Lisa Fischer, undoubtedly talented though she is, doesn't have 'it'. Cynical people would argue that this ephemeral divinity is the product of clever marketing - we're told this person is special and therefore we behave as if they were. But, as the film points out, clever marketing can only go so far - some musicians just don't have what it takes to be superstars, no matter how much talent they've got, how much work they put in and how much they truly, deeply want it.

Late in the fiml there's image of a mountain of failed solo albums from backup singers that neatly sums up this Sisyphean struggle. Glittering, optimistic eyes smile out of record sleeve after record sleeve, burning with the conviction that this record is the one that's going to catapult them out of anonymity towards money and fame. But sadly not, these records hail from the rubbish dump of musical history - the vinyl detritus that clutters up the 50p bins in charity shops.

This litany of shattered dreams and wasted potential understandably leads to quietly simmering resentment against those who've 'made it' and those who remain in the shadows. This seeping negativity makes its way into the film, with broadsides aimed at musical trends that don't need people wailing as loud as they can in the backgrounds or production techniques that eliminate the need for backing singers. Particularly short shrift is given to autotuned vocals; with a gallery of bearded muso types shaking their heads sadly at this 'perversion of technology'. I guess they haven't heard Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak.

The documentary is at its best when it's showcasing the amazing things these women can do with their voices. A vocal tune-up by Lisa Fischer is one of the most impressive musical things I've seen in a film, Merry Clayton's isolated vocal track from Gimme Shelter gets me all a-quiver and a group performance of Lean on Me lead by Darlene Love is something special. There's a beautiful moment where they explain the thrill of falling into the 'flow', finding your own vocal part within a song and falling into synchronisation with everyone around you.  The most evocative is when they explain that the human voice is the purest instrument of all, the direct sound of the singer's inner beauty or turmoil.

Twenty Feet from Stardom is a well-made and glossy documentary.  Over the course of its run-time it gently dips into the civil rights struggle, feminism in pop music and the nature of fame. But while always compelling it's also perverse; celebrating the achievements of backing singers while concluding that it's intolerably awful to be stuck as one. 


Twenty Feet from Stardom is released on 28th March 2014

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