Movie Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Over the title credits of “20 Feet from Stardom,” a documentary by Morgan Neville about background singers, we hear Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Why? Because the colored girls go: Da doo, da doo, da doo, doo da doo doo, da doo, da doo …
How do we describe background singers? What’s their connection to the lead singer? What’s the metaphor?
The most obvious metaphor, or at least the most proper, is the call-and-response of the church, particularly the black church. It’s the minister and his choir. He delivers the sermon and they say “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” He says “Hunhhh” and they say “Hunhhh.” He says “Ho” and they say “Ho.” He says “Hunhhh hunhhh, ho ho,” and they sing “Baby, it’s alright.” This is brought home in the doc by the number of background singers who actually came out of the church; the number who tell Neville, “My father was a minister.”
The other metaphor, equally obvious but less proper, is the pimp and his whores. They dress the way he says. They move the way he says. They follow his lead. “If you wanna be a Raelette,” it’s been said, “you gotta let Ray.”
Sex and talent
I grew up in the heyday of background singers in the early 1970s. Variety shows were big then. The call and response was big. Ray Charles had the Raelettes and Ike Turner the Ikettes and Gladys Knight had her Pips. (Neville, practicing his own brand of gender discrimination, doesn’t mention them. It’s all about the women.)
When did I first see them? On “Ed Sullivan”? “Flip Wilson”? They always looked like they were having more fun than the lead singer. He was often sweating, pained, bearing a burden, while in the background they smiled, slid, shimmied, and made gorgeous noise. They were sexy. Is this where ménage a trois fantasies begin? Ménage a quatre? I remember recently seeing the “Superstar” number from “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, and, yeah, Carl Douglas as Judas is great, but my main thought went something like, “Holy hell, who are those background singers?”
You can’t ignore the sex. “I didn’t set out to be the sex symbol,” says Claudia Lennear, who backed Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones, and who may have been the inspiration for the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” “But you posed for Playboy,” Neville responds. Lennear looks thoughtful for a moment, a response on her lips. then just collapses in abashed laughter.
You can’t ignore the talent, either. It’s stupefying. “20 Feet” isn’t really about the history of background singers, it’s about a chosen few who either tried for stardom and fell back or never really tried. “It’s a bit of a walk,” Bruce Springsteen tells Neville. “That walk to the front is … complicated.”
Why doesn’t it work for these women? Different reasons for different singers. Darlene Love got screwed over by Phil Spector, who kept her in the background for decades and put other girls’ names (“The Crystals”) on her recordings. Maybe Merry Clayton, who originally recorded “Gimme Shelter” with the Stones, didn’t make it because Aretha was already there, and maybe Claudia didn’t make it because Donna Summer was already there, and maybe Judith Hill isn’t making it because Beyoncé is already there. And because Hill dresses like she’s in a 1980s MTV video.
But Lisa Fischer? Who backed Luthor Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass and Chaka Khan in the 1980s, and who has toured with the Stones since 1989? What the hell? You’re often dumbfounded by the talent on display here, but for me there was one moment when the singing was so out there, so surreal, if felt like a wave crashing over my head. That was Fischer singing her Grammy-winning song, “How Can I Ease the Pain?” in Japan in 1992. (Video below; stick around to 3:30.) They were obviously trying to market her as another Whitney. Maybe that was the problem. Because Lisa Fischer not making it? That’s a condemnation of the entire culture. It’s like James Joyce getting rejected by publishers (which happened) and Fred Astaire being dismissed as a bald guy who can dance a little (which happened). But somehow Joyce and Astaire broke through. They got breaks. They had perseverance. Something. Whatever it was.
Love and Justice
That “whatever it was” discussion in “20 Feet” is pretty fascinating. Tata Vega heard she was too old, too fat, not right. Fischer talks about her inability to self-promote. “Who can I call to introduce me to such and such?” she says, then wrinkles her nose. “Something about that just feels strange to me.” People who succeed don’t think twice about making that call. We live in a sales culture, not a talent culture. It ain’t a meritocracy, kids.
But we do get some justice. By the mid-1980s, Darlene Love, who backed everyone from Buck Owens to James Brown, was cleaning homes rather than working for Phil Spector. But she returned to music, and about the time Spector was going to prison for murder she was being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and singing on stage with Springsteen.
What don’t we get? A look at the history before television. We don’t get the ‘40s and ‘30s. We don’t get the Crickets or the Pips or any of the men. We don’t get enough of the ones who became stars. Sheryl Crow? Why her? And does anyone mention Margie Hendricks, the most famous Raelette, who sang foreground in “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” and who died an early, drug-related death?
Even so, go. “20 Feet from Stardom” is a joy. Because the colored girls go: Doo da doo, da doo, da doo, doo da doo doo, da doo, da doo …