Sunday, April 16, 2017

20 Feet From Stardom: Powerful Voices Emerge From The Background

Ever wondered about those backup singers you hear on so many great rock & roll songs, like the magnificent voice rising up during The Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter”? Producer & music industry executive Gil Freisen did, and the result is 20 Feet From Stardom, a revealing 2013 documentary that covers the careers of several of these artists, including Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. The film includes interviews with these talented women, as well as appearances by Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger & Sting. It’s a fascinating look at the lives of some amazing singers, who were featured on songs that are now considered classics, like the Phil Spector produced “He’s a Rebel,” which features vocals by Love. Many of the artists profiled here became the “go to” session singers for many artists and producers of the rock era.

Several of the interviewees point out that the “hooks” we sing along with on many of these songs are actually the parts the backup singers performed. The artists who made use of these incomparable voices, like Jagger, Elton John, Sting & David Bowie, praise the added dimension these singers gave to their music. But the film also covers the dark side of the story. While Love sang the lead on “He’s A Rebel,” the record was credited to producer Phil Spector’s girl group The Crystals, who hadn’t even heard the song, and were on tour when Love recorded it. Spector actually pulled this trick with several releases, denying Love the success she could have achieved if the songs were released under her own name. Clayton, whose vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” were so memorable, unsuccessfully tried to launch a solo career, a problem which has also plagued some others profiled in the film, including Tata Vega & Claudia Lennear.

Lisa Fischer, who sang backup for Luther Vandross, and has toured extensively with The Rolling Stones, did have a semi-successful solo career, and is thankful for that success. She’s philosophical about the ups & downs of being a working musician. Judith Hill, the youngest of those profiled in the film, has been featured on NBC’s The Voice, and is currently trying to make the transition from backup singer to solo performer. The artists profiled all discuss the difficulty of going on that particular journey. The stories they tell are moving, insightful and revelatory. These singers have a shared history that helps bring their experiences into razor sharp focus. 20 Feet From Stardom is a look back at an important period in rock history; these indelible songs and unforgettable voices continue to influence today's artists. The movie features some incredible studio and live performance footage of these singers at work with artists like Vandross, Bowie and Ike & Tina Turner. The film climaxes with a wonderful cover of the Bill Withers classic “Lean On Me” sung by Darlene Love, Jo Lawry, Lisa Fischer & Judith Hill.

Directed by Morgan Neville, 20 Feet From Stardom has received many accolades, including the 2014 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary. It’s a must see movie if you are a music fan; if you don’t know who these singers are now, you certainly will after seeing this film. I’ve loved many of these singers for years, and I found the movie (and their stories) entertaining, illuminating & mesmerizing. The film is now available on Blu-ray & DVD, and is also streaming on some demand services. The disc version contains some deleted scenes, as well as an additional half hour interview with some of the film’s featured artists, conducted by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Author's Note: This month marks the 6th anniversary of John V's Eclectic Avenue. Thanks to all who've read, supported, and spread the word about the blog over the years!

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