TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM (2013) Their names will be unfamiliar to most of us, but their voices will trigger memories of love lost and found, of songs that have become part of the cultural fabric of our country. But the women profiled in Morgan Neville’s latest music documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, were not performers who took center stage. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and others, stood in the shadows of bigger stars performing as backup singers. Anyone who has ever heard them sing on tracks such as The Blossoms’ “He’s a Rebel” and the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” just to name a couple of songs, knows how significant their contributions are.
Music documentaries—with some major exceptions—tend to be pedestrian affairs. They chart the rise and fall and hopefully fiery rebirth of the performer’s career, offering up tantalizing gossip and anecdotes along the way, as well as plenty of memorable live performance clips. Neville has made several music documentaries before, most notably his movie about the Los Angeles singer/songwriter movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, Troubadours. What Neville has a knack for is how he conveys intimacy with his subjects, some of whom are larger-than-life people like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips. His subjects and the people who were influenced by them—such as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting in this movie—remain vulnerably human regardless of how exceptionally talented they are.
The women focused on in this movie also happen to be African American, a significant detail considering that backup singers were primarily white up until the rise of Motown in the 1960s. The center of the movie is Love and her contentious relationship with the troubled “Wall of Sound” genius/madman, producer Phil Spector. Love was a member of the girl group The Blossoms and rose to relative fame singing backup for Sam Cooke and others. In his interview, Springsteen glowingly talks about his appreciation for her vocal skills, enthusiastically admitting that it was her voice that artists like him were always trying to capture in their own songs. Unfortunately, Spector also sidelined her career by holding her contractually hostage working for him. Love never reached the heights of stardom as, say, Diana Ross, but her work nevertheless stands on its own.
Another great focus here is the career of Clayton, who most notably sang backup on “Gimme Shelter” but also got her start singing for Ray Charles. If your skin doesn’t tingle or your heart doesn’t beat a little faster while hearing her belt out “Rape… murder… it’s just a shot away” on the Stones track, then you probably don’t love music. How Clayton urgently takes a lyric so dark and raw and transforms it into something beautifully haunting is one of the great mysteries of interpretation and collaboration. That she performed her vocal track in the middle of the night while wearing pajamas and curlers in her hair makes the story even more special and bewildering. Jagger rightfully waxes with astonishment recollecting the night. That neither Love nor Clayton achieved solo success also reminds us of how unfair the business of art can be.
Twenty Feet from Stardom has its fair share of heartbreak and disappointment. It’s a showbiz documentary after all. But it’s ultimately an uplifting tribute to these great performers and one of the better music documentaries in recent years.
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