20 Feet from Stardom, 90 mins,
rated CTC*, opens 21 November 2013
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my review as published in
the November 2013 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)
In 2002, the documentary Standing in
the Shadows of Motown celebrated the music of the Funk Brothers,
a group of Detroit musicians who backed dozens of Motown recording
artists. These men (and they were all men) were the unsung geniuses
behind scores of hits in the 1960s and 70s, and the film at last
gave them due recognition.
20 Feet from Stardom, a
documentary feature film directed by Morgan Neville, now does the same
thing for the backup singers who brought harmony, texture and depth to
star performances from the 1960s right up to the present day. These
musicians (mostly women) are largely unknown, yet many have at least as
much talent as the artists credited with the hit records. It’s about
time someone told their story.
In the film we meet singers such as Darlene Love (the voice behind Phil
Spector’s girl group, The Crystals), Merry Clayton (who provided, at a
memorable midnight recording session, the striking wails for the
Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter),
Lisa Fischer, who now tours with the Rolling Stones, and Australia’s
own Jo Lawry, who backs up Sting. We also hear from the front men and
women, including Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting,
Bette Midler and Sheryl Crowe (who was once a backup singer herself).
Bruce Springsteen is remarkably perceptive. Early in the film he talks
about the “walk to the front” of the stage, and the kind of courage,
determination, and ego (and sometimes luck) needed to get to
centre-stage. “It’s complicated,” Springsteen says, raising the
central puzzle of this film: why aren’t these women household names?
Director Neville has produced and directed many documentaries, mostly
about popular musicians and the movies. He does a competent job on this
behind-the-scenes film, but he doesn’t quite tell the whole story .
There is little here about the money generated by pop and rock music,
and who gets what. Of course, the recording companies are reluctant to
reveal their secrets, and if the filmmakers did, the companies would be
unlikely to let them use the music. There are also the non-disclosure
clauses in the contracts of the performers, which are often enforced by
withholding royalties and other payments.
And the film only lightly touches on the way these singers were
treated. Some were badly abused by producers: Phil Spector thought
nothing of using Darlene Love’s voice as the lead voice of The Crystals
and some other of his girl groups, and giving her no credit (or
royalties) for a string of hit singles, so that the voice behind “He’s
a Rebel” found herself at one point cleaning houses for a living.
Some singers were treated like possessions: Dr Todd Boyd, Professor of
Critical Studies at the University of Southern California, tells us
that Ike Turner saw himself as the pimp of his wife, Tina Turner, and
their backing group, the Ikettes.
The last part of the film attempts to answer the question that
Springsteen raised at the start: why do so few backup singers make it
as soloists? It does so mostly by asking the stars. Springsteen
explains again that it’s not enough to have a great voice. Everything
else must come together. Sting agrees: “It’s not a level playing field…
It’s about circumstance, luck... The best people realize that and
deal with it.” Producer Lou Adler is baffled by Merry Clayton’s lack of
solo success. She made three albums with Adler, but, as he says, “We
did everything possible and it just didn’t take”.
The film ends rather abruptly, having raised the worrying possibility
that the future of music, being digital, may completely exclude the
need for backup singers. We are also left wondering about Lisa Fischer.
She was brought to centre stage by Luther Vandross and won a Grammy,
but she returned to singing backup – a star despite herself.
Still, there is the music. It feeds the soul and lifts the heart – even
more so now that we have met the forgotten owners of the voices that
help to make it so.