20 Feet From Stardom Review
What’s It About? This year’s Best Documentary Oscar winner, 20 Feet From Stardom, celebrates pop music’s much-overlooked and under-appreciated backing singers. By examining the lives and careers of these hidden talents, it shines a harsh and honest spotlight on how those in the profession have been treated by the music industry.
Verdict: Pertinent. Fascinating. Long overdue. “And the coloured girls say: Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo”. This famous line from Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side introduces the film during its opening credits. Cutting through the rest of the song, this line sums up, and immediately sets the tone for, the movie.
As well as covering the general exploitation of backup singers (keep an eye out for some particularly dodgy dealings by pantomime baddy Phil Spector, screwing over one of our heroines, Darlene Love), one major theme throughout the film is the exploitation of black singers in the 60s and 70s, because bands and their producers wanted a ‘black sound’. The film focuses on four or five such singers, all hailing from gospel backgrounds.
Cultural appropriation in the music industry has been commonplace for a long time, and during this last year Miley Cyrus was called out by Jay Z and Azalea Banks on twitter for her appropriation of black cultures. Perhaps her twerking was blown way out of proportion by the media, but what’s a little more telling was that she has been quoted as saying to her songwriters that she wanted a sound that felt ‘black’. It seems that a lot hasn’t changed and you could say this film and its Oscar win have come at a pretty important time.
Not only does the film fairly and openly represent the racial issues present here, but also the inherent misogyny that goes along with being in the profession (it probably goes without saying, but expect more than a slight nod given to Ike Turner here) – the exploitation of female voices for the benefit of a male-driven business, with a lot of their job being to acts as sideline eye candy in scantily clad outfits. It presents obvious, but always vital and never hackneyed, implications and considerations for today’s music industry. Again, not a lot seems to have changed.
But I’ve got to quickly add that the film is by no means heavy and subversive! It’s brimming with charming interviews, hilarious anecdotes and some real powerhouse vocals. You immediately begin to notice the backup lines from the songs you know and love so much more. Sometimes they’re played back to us solo, without being clouded by the more famous lead lines and instrumental parts of our old favourites. Self-proclaimed diva and backing singer Merry Clayton’s improvised shrieks of “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” in the Rolling Stones’ track Gimme Shelter are particularly goosebump-inducing.
What’s also cool is seeing major stars like Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow (previously a backing singer herself) take a backseat role and give refreshingly honest accounts in their interviews about working with the featured backup singers. All with true humility and respect. Except Jagger, of course.
Final Words: As many of the backing singers state, there’s something special about locking in and harmonising with one and other. They did what they did for the love of their craft. Anything more than the spiritual success they gained from doing what they loved was icing on the cake. Much the same can be said for this movie. It was just a story that needed telling. “We made the film not knowing if anyone would care about these singers,” said director Morgan Neville in an interview with the BBC. But earning the accolade of 2013’s top-grossing documentary and Sunday night’s statue are some nice extras!
20 Feet From Stardom is released in the UK and Ireland on 28th March. Go check it out!