20 Feet From Stardom, 2013 Academy Awards, 86th Annual Academy Awards, backup singers, Best Feature Documentary nominee, Best Feature Documentary winner, Bruce Springsteen, Darlene Love, documentaries, documentary, fame, Gimme Shelter, Janice Pendarvis, Joe Cocker, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, music documentaries, Sheryl Crow, stardom, Sting, Tata Vega, The Rolling Stones
In this day and age, it seems that Warhol’s maxim about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame is seen as more of a cultural imperative than an amusing observation. There is nothing that modern society seems to appreciate more than a good rags-to-riches story…unless it’s a good rags-to-riches-to-rags story, of course. We like to see the underdog make good, at least in a safe, controlled, acceptable environment. We enjoy seeing the unsung hero step from the shadows and into the limelight, taking the long-coveted solo that will allow them to leave behind the workaday drudge of the 9-5 and ascend into that truest pantheon of modern gods: the “star.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t often (or even rarely) happen outside of televised game shows and the reality is usually a bit less glittery: in most cases, we’re lucky if we can get…20 Feet From Stardom.
As someone whose twin loves have always been film and music, music-based documentaries are definitely a weak point for me. At their best, music documentaries can shed new insight on artists I enjoy (along with a few that I don’t), all while giving me a generous helping of good music. At their worst, music documentaries will still (usually) supply plenty of good listening, even if the format may be too musty (talking heads, not to be confused with The Talking Heads) or too frustrating (poorly shot footage, inane commentary). In the vast majority of cases, however, music documentaries will still only cover the headlining star: very little insight is usually given to such things as the touring crew, back-stage personnel, backing band (if a solo artist) or backup singers. The Oscar-nominated documentary 20 Feet From Stardom attempts to rectify this oversight, at least a little, by focusing on those unsung purveyors of the doo-do-doo: backup singers.
When discussing a field as seemingly broad as background singers, it helps to narrow the focus a bit and the doc does so by focusing on a handful of different backup singers, chief among them Janice Pendarvis, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Tata Vega, although some time is also spent with The Waters Family, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, and Mable John, ensuring that there’s a pretty wide cross-section of singers represented. There’s also plenty of commentary from stars who regularly utilize backup singers, including Bruce Springsteen, Sting, The Rolling Stones and Sheryl Crow (herself a former backup singer). Springsteen makes an interesting statement that serves as one of the documentaries two main points: it takes a certain kind of person to make the leap from the background to the foreground and not all singers are equally suited for the task. The other main point is equally important, although rather obvious to music fans: background singers have shaped, guided and enhanced the music we listen to practically since the creation of recorded pop music, even if they seldom get any sort of recognition for it.
20 Feet From Stardom is a brisk, interesting documentary that offers up several good stories and anecdotes about the recording process behind certain timeless songs. Merry Clayton discusses how she recorded the backup parts for the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” at 2AM, with a robe on and curlers in her hair. Janice Pendarvis uses the line “And the colored girls go…: from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” to make a case for black, female empowerment. Luther Vandross was one of David Bowie’s “Young American” singers. Joe Cocker’s spastic dance moves and gentlemanly attitude are discussed, along with an aside about Ray Charles that makes him seem like a jerk. It’s a dizzying array of information and, at times, the film’s structure can suffer just a bit from the overload. At times, 20 Feet From Stardom resembles nothing so much as a series of loosely connected stories about the music business told from the perspective of career insiders.
There is a point to the film, however, aside from the dispersal of interesting information. 20 Feet From Stardom makes a good case for the way that backup singers have been under-represented and marginalized over the years. In the extreme cases, such as with situations where backup singer vocals have been used and sold as “main” vocals without proper compensation, it can even be seen how backup singers have been denied the ability to properly earn and “rise through the ranks,” as it were. It’s quite sobering to see the stacks of unsold solo albums that most of the discussed backup singers have produced: only Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love seemed to have success with their solo careers at all.
Ultimately, as a music fan, I enjoyed 20 feet from Stardom quite a bit. The film was filled with fun anecdotes, some great vintage performance clips and some interesting interviews with the key players. It was brisk, flowed well and featured a few larger themes to center the (sometimes) overwhelming factoids being dropped everywhere. Were this not an Oscar nominated film, I would find myself enjoying this and not thinking much about it later. As one of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature in 2013, however, 20 Feet From Stardom was automatically elevated into a slightly different category, forcing me to view it a little more critically. As such, I actually found it to be one of the weakest of the five nominees, ahead only of Dirty Wars, which was rather flawed. Imagine my surprise, then, when 20 Feet From Stardom went on to win the coveted gold statue the night of the awards. If anything, I suppose that this just proves my earlier point: our societal fascination with stardom isn’t going anywhere.