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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

* * *

Director: Morgan Neville

It takes more than talent to make a star. There are a host of factors that come into play, including, but not limited to, the artist's drive and ambition, their ability to endure sometimes volatile shifts in the pop culture landscape, their ability to market themselves or be marketed by third parties, and, though Morgan Neville's 20 Feet from Stardom isn't too preoccupied with it, racism. It's no coincidence that the majority of the women showcased here, all talented singers, many of whom tried to break out as solo singers but, for various reasons, found themselves relegated to the background, are women of color. Though 20 Feet is an engaging and entertaining film, one of the frustrating things about it is how often it acknowledges issues such as racism only to shy away from a deeper exploration of it. I would recommend it nevertheless, but I don't really think that it's all it could be.

Neville begins the story in the late '50s/early '60s, when the American pop music scene was starting to desegregate enough that black backing vocalists could be brought in to add a little bit of "soul" to the songs of white musicians, and then traces the changing role of backing vocalists through the ensuing decades, focusing primarily on a handful of musicians: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, and Judith Hill. Although the careers of the women interviewed for the film have taken different trajectories, their stories tend to begin the same way, with singing in their church choir and learning how to use their voices to compliment the voices around them. Although Neville ultimately glosses over a number of other issues, 20 Feet from Stardom does an excellent job at exploring the technical aspects of the art of creating a backing vocal, from the ability to tailor one's voice to blend with other voices, to possessing the ability to suppress the need to stand out and allow someone else to be the star of the song. Many of the women in the film have had solo careers of varying degrees of success and the question of how important "ego" is to artistic success comes up frequently. Fischer, for example, is a Grammy winning solo artist but, as depicted by the film, a gentle soul who is not necessarily seeking the lime light and is more content to accept the steady stream of work that comes her way as a backing vocalist (she has been a touring backing vocalist for the Rolling Stones since 1995) than endure the volatile ups and downs faced by a solo artist.

For others, lack of ego wasn't necessarily the problem. Clayton is depicted as someone whose drive was equal to her talent, but whose solo career, for whatever reason, failed to get off the ground, and Love is shown as essentially having been railroaded by Phil Spector who, after she finished her original contract with him and signed with someone else, bought that contract in order to keep her in his employ. Of all the singers who factor into this film, Love is the one that you end up feeling worst for as years of being tormented by Spector eventually pushed her to throw up her hands in dejection and walk away from music, spending several years as a house cleaner before finally venturing back into the industry. Similarly, Lennear experienced a great deal of success as backup early in her career, working for Ike and Tina Turner and then moving on to the Rolling Stones, but would eventually walk away and now works as a Spanish teacher. There is a lot of regret and anger in the film, although there is also a little bit of relief mixed in as well. Tata Vega, another singer profiled by the film, speculates that had her solo career taken off, she'd probably be dead of a drug overdose, and everyone is quick to acknowledge how much baggage solo artists are forced to carry, having to find enough success to support themselves as well as their bands and crews.

Neville weaves the stories of these women together in an anecdotal fashion, moving gracefully from one episode to the next. Some of the stories are more enthralling than others. For example, Love's story of how she decided to try for a comeback when she was cleaning someone's house and heard one of her songs come on the radio, or the story of Clayton's participation in the recording of "Gimme Shelter," which takes on an ethereal, mythological quality as Clayton and Mick Jagger relate their memories in separate interviews, are excellently, expertly framed by the filmmaker. Other stories, like that of Hill, who was a backing vocalist for Michael Jackson and is now attempting to cross over as a solo artist, feels a little bit more like promotion than anything else but, really, more power to her if it's successful since, as the film itself points out, actual vocal talent has become less of a necessity with the rise of technology that can "clean up" bad vocals and make them artificially good. It would be nice to see someone succeed on their own merits, rather than on the merits of the computer technology at their disposal.

20 Feet from Stardom is an entertaining film - a picture with as much good music as this one couldn't be anything less - but it fails to take on much in the way of depth. It raises a lot of interesting points - for example, that the difficulty faced by backing vocalists to cross over is rooted, at least in part, by the fact that they didn't write their own music - but there's not much in the way of follow through. This is particularly frustrating when it comes to the role of race in the success (or lack thereof) of the women involved. 20 Feet acknowledges the probability of race as a factor, but then sort of shrugs it off without offering any real analysis of the issue. That doesn't make it a bad film, but certainly it ends up being less meaningful than it had the potential to be.

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