20 Feet From Stardom

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20 Feet from stardomWhen a movie about background singers starts with Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side (“and the colored girls go ‘doo do do…’”), as well as cool shots and edits of records spinning – things are off to a strong start. When we start seeing that the talking heads aren’t just frustrated background vocalists, but folks like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crowe, and Bette Midler – you realize you’re dealing with a documentary filmmaker that did its homework.

Many of the names of the women the documentary follows unfortunately, aren’t household names like those.

Morgan Neville’s film will certainly cover songs you know and love. I was thrilled to see Darlene Love as one of the featured singers. She and I had a series of letters when I was in my 20s based on something I wrote, and I always got a kick out of her annual Christmas visit to David Letterman to belt out her holiday hit Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Listening to her talk about singing the lead on He’s a Rebel and having Phil Spector steal it and slap a different groups name on it – as well as her time cleaning houses because of her frustration working with Spector (he should get another 10 years added to his sentence for almost killing Love’s career). You can’t help but love the success Love finally achieved. That doesn’t mean all of these singers have, though. A few of the stories break your heart.

I never knew the story about Merry Clayton singing those powerful, wailing screams on Gimme Shelter. She was called at midnight, while pregnant, and asked to meet the Rolling Stones at the studio. She had never heard of them, and showed up in her PJs. She was given the lyrics she was to sing: “Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away!”

Hearing some of those ‘70s songs got me thinking about the many backing vocalists Pink Floyd used. One of them was Clare Torry, who was paid 30 pounds for doing an entire song on Dark Side of the Moon – one of the biggest selling albums ever. Since she basically improvised all the parts she sang in Great Gig in the Sky, she sued in 2003 for royalties based on a songwriting credit. She won an undisclosed amount, which was probably over a million bucks. That story wasn’t featured in this movie, but no worries. You get lots and lots of great stories you didn’t know.

It doesn’t matter what kind of music you listen to, background singers are involved. My parents listened to some of the girl groups of the 60s, there were back-up singers. My older brother had lots of Lynyrd Skynyrd records. Lots of background singers. Even new wave bands used them, as we see clips of the Talking Heads and David Bowie. And unless they were backing Ike and Tina Turner, they usually just stood outside the spotlight on the stage, barely being noticed.

A few of the background singers did try to make it on their own. There were various reasons as to why their careers didn’t take off, and I’ll leave that for you to discover.

Perhaps my only knock on the film is that it touches on so many reasons why it’s hard to make it in the music industry, yet I’d like it to be a tad more revelatory in spots.

Judith Hill, who was recently voted off The Voice, is one of the performers featured. She was all set to go on the road with Michael Jackson. He went and died on her. Don’t feel too bad for her. She hit the road with Stevie Wonder, and will soon go on to bigger and better things.

Speaking of Michael Jackson, I thought it was strange that when Sheryl Crowe talked about the importance of background singers, she never mentioned that she started as a backing vocalist for Michael Jackson.

The fact that this isn’t just a story about people being screwed over by the music industry made it more interesting. One woman is being interviewed while she’s driving her Mercedes (and she snaps at the filmmaker for not letting her have the stereo on).

I knew nothing about Luther Vandross, yet enjoyed hearing his stories about starting out as a backing vocalist.

There’s a family of backing singers featured that have done TV show themes (Growing Pains) and movies (The Lion King and Avatar).

There is a lot of talk about the Ikettes. One music professor said Ike Turner was like a pimp, and they were his hoe’s. The prettiest Ikette talks about “hanging out” with Mick Jagger. I’m sure he’s going to love hearing her state, “We mostly just tried on each others clothes.”

One woman talked about the conflicting feelings she had singing background vocals on Sweet Home Alabama, while Lynyrd Skynyrd was flying a southern flag behind her.

There was great footage of Lisa Fischer performing right here at Humphrey’s in ShelterIsland. Lots of fun footage of the women in the studios, too.

I did cringe when one of the women talked about groups during the British invasion “trying to sound black.” Something about people saying that about various genres of music irks me. I don’t think Eminem, Macklemore, Mickey Avalon, or the Beastie Boys were white rappers “trying to sound black.” I don’t think of hard rockers like Jimi Hendrix or Living Colour as “trying to sound white.”

In the ‘60s, The Beatles, Animals, Kinks, or Led Zeppelin tried to sound bluesy, not “black.” They loved the songs of the blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Robert Johnson. They happen to be black, but I’m not sure of what the point of making such a goofy statement is.

Since I brought up rappers, it made me think. Our parents always told us how well we had it, and how they didn’t have a car when they were a teenager. They walked to school – barefoot and in the snow. I wonder if these singers tell their kids “We didn’t just rap and talk the lyrics, we had to actually sing. There wasn’t lip-synching and auto-tuning. You couldn’t just record your songs on a computer in your bedroom, but had to go into a studio…”

The documentary last year called It Might Get Loud featured musicians I’m a bigger fan of – Jack White, Jimmy Page, and The Edge. Yet this documentary is so much better. The stories, the edits, and even the scene of them in the studio has the magic that It Might Get Loud couldn’t capture. It’ll surely be nominated for an Oscar as best documentary.

It’s the most uplifting and enthralling movie I’ve seen this year.

It gets 4 ½ stars out of 5.

deniece 20 feet

I brought my friend DeNeice Kenehan, a local singer, to the screening with me. I asked her opinions about it. She said, “When we sat down, I told you that the night before I had seen one of the most brilliant singers on The Voice axed because she didn’t get as many votes as the cookie cutter country singers. Within minutes, there is that very amazing young singer on screen. Judith Hill was the youngest of the half dozen or so singers featured. She was the last chick singer dueting with Michael Jackson. She brought the house down at his memorial show, and she’s the singer that Stevie Wonder praised endlessly in this film. She’s struggling to go solo.

As a singer, it reminded me of why I need to sing. I didn’t learn to sing until my early 40s. It was always something I longed to do but I just never paused from a busy career to follow my bliss. I used to sing into flower vases when I was a kid. Still have that green vase…my first mic. A friend thought I wanted to learn to sing for church. I said, ‘No. Just to get the music out.’

I had a fire in my belly to learn to sing. And I endured years of frustration developing my instrument. I was not a natural. I got comedic leads in musicals almost immediately, but wanted to sing more. I started singing in churches and small clubs. I was a utility singer and did whatever I was asked, pretty much enjoying it all. After you begin performing, and business gets involved and you are paid to sing – you can lose sight of why you first sang. This documentary was an incredible reminder. In this documentary, Lisa Fisher talks about why she doesn’t need to be in the spotlight. Mick Jagger, whom she has toured and dueted with since ’99, is perplexed how someone so talented could find satisfaction (couldn’t resist) just singing “oooo” and “aaaah” in the background, for years and years. It’s clear that she sings for the joy of the music. The healing connection with the sound itself. And she doesn’t choose to experience the bull***t of the spotlight. Her ego doesn’t need that. She just loves making music.

Some of the other singers described and demonstrated the thrill of creating harmony together. We hear about some attempted solo careers that floundered, and how these aging singers can be tossed onto the garbage heap by their own aging bosses – and the public – sometimes. They acknowledge how the superstars, there good friends, are a mere 20 feet away and so different; with their courage, bravado and ego.

I wondered when I left the theatre how non-musicians will identify with the stories of these life journeys. Maybe all humans have something inside to express. We all experience the struggle, frustrations, and failures. It was the most thrilling documentary I’ve seen since Searching for Sugar Man. I’m taking some singer friends when it opens.”

If you want to see 20 Feet From Stardom, it’s at the La Jolla Village Landmark. If you want to see DeNeice Kenehan perform, you can catch her with Jim Bianchi at Vigilucci’s in Coronado, July 7th from 7 to 9 p.m.

3 comments

  • Nicole

    HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA. We noticed, Ms. Kenehan. We see your positive paragraphs on it. I went to Mission Valley AMC theater to see it, and it wasn't there. They told me it was only at Hillcrest. Since I was already there, I just saw Pacific Rim instead. It was the opposite of "music to my ears." Lots and lots of loud explosions. Okay movie, though.

  • Joe Nathan

    Merry Clayton, who sang back up on "Sweet Home Alabama", only sang it with Skynyrd in the studio. The footage they showed of them with the Confederate flag unfurling as a stage backdrop during a performance of the song was taken from an episode of The Old Grey Whistle on the BBC that was filmed in 1975. Merry Clayton was not in the band for that performance. She never performed with them outside of the original recording of the song during the sessions for Second Helping in 73/74.

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