Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dallas IFF 2013 Review: TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM - Javi's Take

Directed by: Morgan Neville 
Starring:  Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Gloria Jones, and Merry Clayton
Synopsis: A look at various back up singers from the last 5 decades as they tell their stories backing up some of the biggest names in rock history.

I'm not a person too keen on documentaries but I am making it a point to get more into them this year. To ease into the genre, I figured that I would start out with some familiar territory with some music documentaries. TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM is a documentary about various back-up singers all hailing mostly from the 1950's-1970's and having them re-tell their experiences as a person that gets to be particularly close to the spotlight but never gets there themselves, hence the title. What followed was a story that was full of great music, great stories, but that as a whole, the film felt a little off with its premise.

To begin with the positives, it is fascinating to hear more about the lives of people that are behind the scenes of some of the best music from the past. I particularly enjoyed the history of Darlene Love and the Blossoms, and hearing more about Phil Spector before his time with the Beatles and before he was a crazed alleged murdered. The beginning of the movie starts so interesting where we get to hear of these people who, in a way, were being relatively selfless in that they loved music and performing but were willing to not take part of the spotlight. Along with the interviews with the ladies themselves, there are short segments with famous musicians such as The Boss himself, Sting and Sheryl Crow, probably to add some recognizable faces.

The movie as a concept is a bit of a contradiction. The movie never seems to be too keen on the fact that back up singers are ideally not supposed to be in the spotlight and yet, the movie highlights only a handful of singers all within the same era and genres. The documentary focuses on the most famous of those singers between Ms. Love, then Judith Hill, who sang at the Michael Jackson funeral to the legendary Lisa Fischer. We learn that these singers all tried and failed at having a solo career. It's at this point of the movie where it fell apart for me a little bit. It felt like the various back up singers were just using this role as a stepping stone to bigger fame and fortune. There's nothing wrong with that, it feels like the press for the film sold it as something else.

Where it started to pick up was when the various singers start talking about their role within music industry while record labels were going under. There are more and more home recordings and people learn to multi-track their own voices on their Macs, so slowly but surely, a lot of back up singers working today see the calls for a job slowly stopping. Even more interesting was hearing about how many of the back up singers got to do more work thanks to the British rock bands. In America, a lot of the black singers were basically told to hold back and stay within a certain parameter.

As a random aside that has nothing to do with the movie itself but with the chapter of the movie, one of the observations I had from when the various singers described their fledgling solo careers was that the voice and the talent behind the performance was so obvious while the songwriting was so darn boring. A lot of the songs that were sampled from their various solo albums were so generic, I could see why their careers never took off. The closing number of the movie is various singers highlighted in some standard number that has been covered so many times. It was beautiful to listen to, but there was no originality. It's interesting that these super talented ladies don't get that having their own voice. It's like a pop version of a technical metal band, sure the solos are amazing and the drummers can do blast beats and double bass drums, but it all gets boring after a while.

Given that it's a music documentary, it almost feels like a moot point to say that the music was amazing. And just like many of the people that will watch this, there were so many songs and hooks that I know by heart, but never knew the singers behind them. A big one was Darlene Love's Christmas Baby Please Come Home, which was prominently featured in the opening scene of GREMLINS and has been a highly recognizable song since I was a wee lad.

The documentary is a crowd pleaser, garnering some of the biggest applause from the festival. For anyone that even has a remote interest in music and classic songs from the early stages of rock and roll, soul, and everything in between will really like this movie. It's important to know more about the hidden side of history, and a lot of these ladies helped shape the sound of songs that have become classics in music.

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