Saturday, July 20, 2013

20 Feet from Stardom (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

20 Feet from Stardom

Morgan Neville's (The Cool School) documentary "20 Feet from Stardom" places you squarely left of center in the lives of many accomplished back-up singers. These vivacious women, who are more like sorceresses in my opinion, deserve far more credit than they often get for their art, but many of them have been virtuosic alone.

Here we have the legendary Darlene Love who worked with the charismatic but volatile music producer Phil Spector and singlehandedly vocalized many hits from the 1960s ("He's a Rebel") but received little credit. There is the iconic but down to earth Merry Clayton who sang the original controversial lyrics for The Rolling Stones's "Gimme Shelter". There is also the voluptuous and angelic Lisa Fischer who came to the fore in the 60s working for Tina Turner and  achieved near star-status in the 1980s with Luther Vandross.

This documentary is most intriguing for raising the question of who has the upper hand in the music world in terms of creativity.  All the headliners from Springsteen, to David Bowie, Sting and Lou Reed, depend on their back-up singers to give their songs that extra whirl, that spark, or that crucial fusion with the audience. Without these singers, Prince is a mere puff of purple sequins. Merry Clayton even scored the upper hand in singing the main chorus in Lynard Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama". As she says in the film "I'll show you Alabama all right!" The country rock song would be nothing without her and as depicted in the film almost seems a satire and a well deserved oneupmanship instead of an in-your-face southern anthem.

You will feel for all of these artists and recognize them as geniuses. Darlene Love was subordinated and harshly snubbed by Spector and his unapologetic greed. Claudia Linnear who was in many ways the pulse of The Rolling Stones, appeared in Playboy, embarked on a solo career but faced disappointing sales. She now teaches English to students, forced to put her vocal career on hold. Tata Vega who worked with Stevie Wonder, also faced a struggling solo run, but she now works for Elton John. Last but not least, there is the wunderkind Judith Hill who spritely worked with Michael Jackson on his last Xanadu-like rehearsal of "This Is It". She fears being typecast into routine busy-work by her time with Jackson, and takes to wearing disguises onstage, most recently on Jay Leno.

The music featured is pulsing and electric, well matched by the imagery and editing which create a rhythmic collage of celebrity and history and the gaps between solitude and success, between uncertainty and verve.

"20 Feet from Stardom" shows these singers for who they really are: covert and curvaceous women, (many of them grown from Gospel roots) who surreptitiously slip the true personality into a song and have the last shout.

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1 comment:

Randell said...

This is fantastic!