When Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary The Act of Killing won the BAFTA for best documentary few could fault the choice. While you can see why Director Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom, with its fast-paced montage of musical clips and emotional interviews, you can’t help feeling Oppenheimer was robbed. The film might not be Oscar material, but the nostalgic clips are so much fun, and the interviews so interesting in what they reveal (or not), that you will be riveted from start to finish.
In the film we meet some of the names behind the best sounds of the past 60 years, the (primarily) black, American female singers who made Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springstein, Sting, Lou Reed, David Byrne and many more mega stars sound so good. If there is a criticism of the film it is that the fast editing across time and singers makes it a challenge to keep track of the various threads of stories, and even of who is who, as many of the singers have changed so much over time.
20 Feet from Stardom shines a spotlight on the unsung heroines of music for the last 60 years, putting many of the interviewees in their 60s and 70s. The reunion of the Blossoms, who, if you didn’t know, look like any other group of older ladies, is touching, while hearing Merry Clayton, a preacher’s daughter, reminisce about her last minute ‘audition’ for the Rolling Stone’s 1969 ‘Gimme Shelter’ recording is thrilling.
She was in her nightclothes with her hair in rollers when she dashed to the studio in the middle of the night and asked to sing out ‘rape’, ‘murder: just a shout away’ in what are now among the most spine- chilling vocals in rock history.
Jagger’s patronizing and distasteful comment on back-up singing, ‘it’s kind of fun for a minute, I’m not sure I’d like to do it for a living’ is odd, as the song owes its power to Clayton’s vocals. But as the stories of these mostly black women from gospel singing childhoods show, the attitudes of the record producers or lead singers they worked with differed considered, and could make or break careers.
Next to Ike Turner in the scale of the man least likely to promote or single you out for a solo career is Phil Spector, now serving a long jail term. Darlene Love sang on dozens of the Top 40 tracks with the Blossoms trio in the 1960s. When they attracted the attention of ‘wall of sound’ creator Spector, it was a very mixed blessing.
Love reached the top of the charts with ‘Today I met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry’ and ‘He’s a Rebel’, but Spector, a terrible bully, did not believe in giving credit to any individual other than himself. Some of her best singing was not credited to her name, and she found other singers dubbed with her voice! When she finally quit, finding work was hard and she became a housekeeper. Now in her 70s, she is still enjoying a resurgence.
Not all back-up singers seek the lime-light. They lack the ego and enterprise, and just want to sing. But for those seek fame, being a back-up singer is an obvious avenue. The film reveals, with a wonderful clip of Luther Vandross surrounded by female vocalists, doing back-up on David Bowie’s Young Americans, that Vandross was one who succeeded – but he’s a male. Vandross, along with Sting, put the spot light on Lisa Fischer and helped launch a solo career that ultimately she could not sustain.
The youngest of the back-ups, Judith Hill, was rehearsing for Michael Jackson’s ill-fated come-back tour in London when she received the news of his death. She ended up performing a solo tribute at his memorial service that was broadcast to billions of listeners around the world. After that, Hill felt she could not ruin her solo chances by taking back-up gigs. Later in the film, we see that the challenges of the market have led her to relent.
Claudia Linnear, who sang back up for Ike and Tina Turner and the very generous Joe Cocker now teaches Spanish, while Tata Vega, who was signed to Motown in the 1970s as a solo artist, was dropped after a few albums and for years, never found her feet. She was told she was ‘too old. Too fat’. She now tours with Elton John. The moral of the story is that a great voice is not enough in the tough, competitive music industry, where charisma, drive, ego, personality, looks, the right lyrics and sound and other factors have to coalesce.