Saturday, July 20, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom

OK, I'm going to start by telling you how wonderful this documentary about backup singers is, but then I'm going to wrap it up by taking a dump all over it. Just be forewarned.

This is the story of the black choral singers who emerged from during the rock 'n' roll years and provided a lot of the character and finer qualities of music of the past 55 years.

The movie starts by describing the transition from the all-white backup singers predating rock 'n' roll, and then how the kind of gospel, preacher sings/choir answers format began to permeate popular music and become the in thing.

The primary focus of the film is on Claudia Linnear and Darlene Love, who were big in the '60s and '70s before musical tastes changed and their careers petered out, and secondarily on Judith Hill, an up-and-coming singer who has to struggle between doing backup and establishing herself as a solo artist.

There are many others mentioned and features but, perhaps fittingly, I've forgotten their names (though not their voices).

The anecdotes are punctuated with interviews with many of the stars who used their talents over the years, like Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow and Sting, who comes the closest to truth by admitting to being somewhat befuddled by what makes success. Destiny, he says, and perhaps that's a good word for it.

After all, you must be gifted, as these people all were, and you must work hard, as these people all did (and do). Then you must also be lucky, and in many ways, they all were. But last, you must really want to be a star, to the point where, perhaps, you sacrifice your soul in the process. (Not that you have to sacrifice it, but an unwillingness to do so is going to be a barrier.)

So, what did we learn? Phil Spector was apparently a psycho long before he murdered Lana Clarkson. Darlene Love, who got screwed by Spector over a Christmas song (that he released under a different girl band's name because, you know, it was really a Spector album anyway), took a few years off to clean houses, then came back (to a degree) to sing on Letterman every Christmas and to take a supporting role in the original Lethal Weapon.

Oh, what was cool was that I had just tweeted, prior to seeing this, this great clip from The Concert For Bangla Desh where Leon Russell does a medley of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Youngblood" and I said, "Listen to the call/answer between Russell and the backup singer"—and said backup singer turned out to be Claudia Lennear!

(I'd link the clip here, but it's been pulled by Apple Corps, which I'm sure is exactly what The Beatles had in mind when they started that label.)

You can't say enough good things about Lennear's singing ability. It is otherworldly. It's Barbra Streisand quality, except I never wanted to punch Lennear.

This is a bit of a hagiography, of course, and that's fine. The closest that it comes to challenging anyone is when Lennear says she never set out to be a sex symbol and they point out that she posed for Playboy. She just laughs and blushes a little. (Lennear was known as "Brown Sugar, and consorted with both Jagger and Bowie back in the day. And she really epitomized the "black is beautiful" aesthetic of the '70s.)

The weakness there is that we don't get much insight into things. It's great as a stroll down memory lane—even for a guy like me, who doesn't know much of the music—and it's entertaining in itself, as both The Flower and The Boy enjoyed it, and they knew maybe one or two of the songs. (The Flower knew "Thriller" and presumably The Boy kinda-sorta knows it.)

But when they stroll through the list of '70s backup singers who had solo albums (that all flopped) there's very little discussion or insight into why. (That's when Sting floats the "destiny" idea.) Though as they were panning over the albums playing clips, it didn't strike me as surprising: There was nothing memorable, musically, in any of it.

The '70s was a peak for generic music that rewarded image more than musical skill. Modern day is probably much worse, with the autotuning and all that. Which leads me into my rant.

First, the film features an actual damnable "critical race theory" professor from USC, and he's there to talk about sticking it to The Man, as needed. The White Man, of course. This is always unpleasant at best, and grossly hypocritical at worst.

Merry Clayton sang backup on Lynyrd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and this was framed as showing the White Man how great and indispensable these backup singers were, something which, I would guess Lynyrd Skynyrd knew, given that he asked for her in the first place.

You did it because it was a paying gig, and Skynyrd wasn't racist. Or they were racist and you're awful. Pick one. Don't pretend to be making a statement.

The elephant in the room, however, is this: The movie begins with a triumphal celebration of all these black gospel singers crowding out the white girls who had come before. The black girls couldn't read music, but they could spontaneously harmonize and riff, which was more suited to the music of the time.

Then, the movie ends with a lamentation about autotuning and how the industry doesn't respect talent any more. You suppose any of those white girls in the '50s had talent? Or were the impulses of a youth-driven culture more important than, say, the ability to read music?

In other words, it's completely un-self-aware, like most Baby Boomer-oriented stuff. History began in the late '50s, the culture of the '60s and '70s was the best, and any deviation from that is just horrible.

Yeah, I sound grumpy, because the message is one I'm tired of hearing. But it's not a hard thing to look past, and I recommend you do. It's a good movie.

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