(No longer in theaters)
Jun 14, 2013
To watch and listen to Morgan Neville’s marvelous portrait of sundry under-sung backup singers, Twenty Feet From Stardom, is to understand how many things Auto-Tune can’t do, foremost among them change the pitch of a person’s soul. The songs have not remained the same. The movie is a hymn to the passed-over, the “colored girls” who went doo do doo do doo and so much more but who couldn’t make (or haven’t yet made) the cosmic twenty-foot leap to fortune and fame.
To name names: You’ve heard of Darlene Love. But Lisa Fischer? Merry Clayton? Táta Vega? Claudia Lennear? Judith Hill? Listen and be floored. The journey of these women—literal in some cases, inspirational in others—began in the early sixties, when gospel in the person of black female backup singers gave pop music its chesty bottom and heavenward top. Plenty of famous talking heads—Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, and Bette Midler, among others—appear onscreen to testify eloquently on behalf of the women behind the voices. But speaking voices carry only so far. It’s when Neville cuts to extended clips of Darlene or Merry or Lisa with Bruce or Stevie or Luther Vandross that you gasp at the ecstatic convergence of lung power and spirit.
Early on, Neville jumps from bliss to bliss. Three of the Blossoms (Love, Fanita James, and Gloria A. Jones) reunite after 40 years and perform “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Ray Charles and the Raelettes perform “What’d I Say”—modeled, we’re told, on the call and response of a pastor and his flock but in this case with something not lofty in mind. Neville interrupts his chronology for a snippet of Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt impishly mirroring David Byrne in Stop Making Sense—always a treat. Then “pimp” Ike Turner shows off his Ikettes in their micro-mini-dresses and very white Brits like Cocker and Jagger call in the black girls for authenticity (and soul). Merry Clayton was summoned out of bed—in her nightgown and curlers—and handed a sheet of bizarre lyrics about rape and murder being just a shot away. She didn’t get it, but she brought it. Neville isolates her “Gimme Shelter” vocal, and Jagger gives it a listen, 40-odd years on. His eyes widen. What is there to say? Both times I’ve seen the film the audience broke into applause.
There is speculation—from stars, producers, other backup singers—about why these women with superhuman talent didn’t break through. Not enough ego? Racism? Bad luck? Phil Spector might have given Darlene Wright the name “Love,” but he used her hatefully, putting her voice in other performers’ mouths. She walked away in disgust—and had to take housecleaning jobs. Despite Lou Adler’s best efforts, Merry Clayton’s records didn’t sell. And Lisa Fischer—after winning a Grammy—lost her mojo when her second album took too long. The 29-year-old Judith Hill (father African-American, mother Japanese) is the latest to shoot for a solo career, calling backup singing a “quicksand.” That word is a slap after the glories on display in this movie—and you wonder if for Neville it’s stardom (rather than supernatural ability) that’s the ultimate prize. But Mick does have a point when he says that “oohs and ahs” are fun for a while but then you want something more. And these days there’s less need for great backing vocals, what with fewer epic recording sessions and a handy Auto-Tuning knob for fixing the mix.
There is one ingredient for stardom that’s rarely available to backup singers but will be now to Hill, Clayton, Love, Fischer, and the rest: a front-and-center life story with which people who read People can identify, preferably that of an underdog who never got his or her due. Voilà! When Twenty Feet From Stardom hits, the last might well be first.