Monday, August 5, 2013

20 Feet from Stardom, a Movie Review

This movie features Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Cheryl Crowe,  Stevie Wonder, and Bette Milder. But the stars of this movie are not these performers, it is the incredibly talented backup singers that have worked with them for years just twenty feet or so behind them on stage. And, most of them initially had a goal to make it from backup singer to headliner.

This story (or stories) is not one of failure, it is one of true talent that was recognized by their peers and those whose work would be so flat without their harmony. It is the story of the many black women who rose from singing in church with these incredible voices, truly gifts from God, to Los Angeles and Detroit in the late 60's trying to make it as a star only to be stopped just short of their goal. For instance the Crystals; Lala Brooks, Barbara Alston, and Darlene Love. You are probably familiar with their hit song, Then He Kissed Me. However, you've never heard of them because their names were buried and their talent used elsewhere. 

The film shows how producers like Phil Spector manipulated the industry by giving these women contracts, thereby having total control over their careers. He was able to use their voices to cover for acts he was producing who were not nearly as talented and keep them from competing with the legends he already had such as Areatha Franklin.

It shows so many of the women coming so close to stardom but just not being able to reach the top. And, some, you will recognize their voices and their songs, but may have never heard of them. The confirmation from the artists like Springsteen, Jagger, and others as to how unbelievably talented these ladies are and how vital they are to these stars' music is a testament to their value to the industry. Most of these music legends can remember the first time they heard these ladies voices. 

Most of the women are now in their 70's. Some have been able to find success and fulfillment late in life. Some are still singing backup and happy to have the work, while others still aspire for the top. And others, sadly, gave up and their talents are lost to most us. 

Darlene Love said that one day she was cleaning someone's house when her song, Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) came on the radio. She said she realized then she had no business cleaning houses, she needed to be singing. In 2012 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And, as Bette Midler said when she introduced her at Love's induction, "And, it's about time."

The film is a glimpse into a world that has been before us all this time. Most of us have grown up with the music and we can sing the tunes from Ray Charles to the Stones. But, perhaps we never looked 20 feet behind to see the talent, the harmony, those incredible voices that were the background, the support to lead. After all when have you ever seen Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, or Ray Charles sing alone. And, the greatest groups from the 60's were those who sang in harmony. 

20 Feet From Stardom, just like the story itself, will not get wide release, which is a shame, but it deserves all the attention and support it can get. If you enjoy and appreciate music at all, I urge you to find a theater that is showing this film and invest the 91 minutes. It will open your eyes and next time you see a concert, your eyes will wonder past the star to the talent just behind him or her. And, you may realize, if only. . .

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