Aside from its winning title, the best material offered up by the documentary film Twenty Feet from Stardom are the musical performances, seen and—more important—heard both in footage of concerts extending back to the 1960s and in spontaneous outbursts of song staged before the cameras of the moviemakers in the more recent past. This is a movie about back-up singers (“background singers” is the term the musicians interviewed for the film generally favor), almost all of them black and female. Whenever these women sing together the joy they take in this singular act is inspiring, beautiful, even revelatory.
One such performance, though a short one, comes near the film when the fabulous singer, Darlene Love is reunited with other members of the girl group she fronted in 1960s, The Blossoms. After hugging each other these women immediately begin to sing one of their old numbers in perfectly tuned harmony. The unbridled brilliance of what they do is riveting. Even the singers themselves are swept up by the euphoria of the sound that comes magically from their mouths, the power of music rendering nostalgia irrelevant. It’s as if no time had elapsed since they’d last joined voices together four decades before. The dialectic of precision and ease, of rigor and naturalness, sets a standard for performances that extend across generic divisions between classical and popular music, indeed any other musical frontiers one can think of. Never bothering with much doubt about her own enormous gifts, Love herself is bowled over by The Blossoms’ excellence.
Love’s very name perfectly captures her musicianship: never is love of music more present than when she and her colleagues, and the various constellations of other women, sing together. Twenty Feet from Stardom is full of ironies, one of the lesser ones being the fact that this extraordinary singer was born Darlene Wright but rebranded as Darlene Love by the music business that, if the film is to be believed, did much to thwart her artistic fulfillment and financial success. The main bad guy is notorious producer, Phil Spector. Dutifully following Spector’s ironfisted orders, Love and the Blossoms recorded He’s a Rebel, which was released under the name of a phantom group The Crystals. Thanks to the powerhouse performance by the anonymous lead singer (Love) and her back-up vocalists, the song surged to number one on the Billboard charts in 1962. The filmmakers did not penetrate into the Corcoran State Prison in Central California to interview Spector, who would doubtless have spurned them anyway. For the forces of evil, the best defense is usually silence rather than denial.
On the cusp of breaking through to solo stardom, Love’s contract was sold by Spector to another label where she languished, this being only the most devastating blow of exploitation and degradation she apparently suffered. So discouraged became Love that for a time during the Seventies and early Eighties she quit the music business and cleaned houses. As Love tells it in the documentary, she was scrubbing a bathroom in December when a radio in the client’s house started playing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), another hit of hers produced by Spector for his holiday compilation of 1963. This came as an epiphany for Love: a voice from afar—her own—calling on her to change her life. Like so many of these singing women, Love learned her art from earliest childhood in the black church, and she interpreted the radio revelation as a message God calling her to get back to sharing her musical gifts with a wider public than toilet bowls.
Love returned to the profession singing back-up and went on to enjoy late career success on Broadway and as a solo singer. She is now in a beautiful seventy years old, seemingly as full of voice and personality and love of music as when she was a girl group genius in the 1960s.
In contrast to the career trajectories of so many of the other singers featured in the film, Love’s is a tale of rebirth and, finally, recognition: the movie concludes with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, the award bestowed on her by another woman, Bette Midler, one of the few female singers holding celebrity status to be interviewed for the film. Midler and others point out that the contributions of back-up singers were vital to the growth of Rock & Roll, especially in lending the crucial “blackness” to, among other white musical phenomena, the invaders from Britain, the Rolling Stones and others. Claudia Lennear was an Ikette behind Tina Turner under the terrifying reign of Ike Turner, and back-up singer for Joe Cocker, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones, with whom she also broke occasionally to the front line, as the movie shows in colorful detail. Lennear, too, emerged from the back-up ranks to record a solo album, Phew! in the early Seventies but this effort did not vault her from the background of supporting harmony to the foreground of celebrity. She’s now a high school Spanish teacher. That Lennear nurtured a life-long love of foreign languages and as a child dreamt of being an UN interpreter is somewhat mendaciously suppressed by the film, which wants us to believe that her becoming a school teacher was a sort of failure and another black mark on the music industry.
Indeed, the film is unsure if it’s central theme is the joy of singing together—and not just as an essential flavor in white-rock rolls spice drawer—or if it is about the relentless urge to escape from the chorus to fabulous, even if drug-addled, solo success. Some of the film’s featured singers are let off their close-harmony tether and given space to emerge as individuals, but most return to the back of the stage, twenty feet from stardom. The forays to the front-line are often cast in a bittersweet light by the film, as in a wonderful scene when Lisa Fischer—a veteran session singer, who a two decades ago won a Grammy winner as a soloist and has sung back-up for the Stones on all their tours of the last twenty years—is allowed space by bandleader Sting to spin out the fantastical, pitch-pure arabesques of her rapturous incantations. When Fischer speaks about her career, an up-and-down one in the terms of celebrity culture, her words are a mix of pride, resilience and melancholy. Sting himself is puzzled by her failure to “make it” in outsized commercial terms. In the film, Fischer appears stoically to fall victim to the vagaries and vanities of an unjust business and the constantly turning wheel of fortune that lofts a musician to the top and then hurls them back down for no apparent reason. Yet Fischer sings on, her artistry and authenticity undiminished.
As befits a movie about the human voice, Twenty Feet from Stardom has been buoyed by a word-of-mouth chorus that has kept the film in the theaters longer than one might have expected and elevated it to the top of this year’s documentary list. The enthusiasm that greeted the movie at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival has only been amplified by its many fans and the overwhelming positive reviews like that of A. O Scott in the New York Times. But for all the uncontainable energy and compelling artistry of the singers, the film leaves a bad taste in the mouth and a nagging echo in the ears: heard too often in aggravating counterpoint to the background voices are the “expert” talking heads who hold forth at regular intervals through the film. They are overwhelmingly white men, from Mick Jagger to Sting to Bruce Springsteen. Even though these rock patriarchs harbor sympathy for the vocalists who are the subject of the film, the male filmmakers unwittingly make it clear why so many of these women have been exploited. The men are seen to have the brains, staying powering, and intellectual distance to write the history of background singing as it is presented in the documentary. Having richly benefited from the work of Lennear, Fishcer and others others, Jagger has the stones to say of back-up singers, “I don’t think I’d want to do the oohs and the doos all my life.”
In Twenty Feet from Stardom, the female performers also speak clearly and forcefully about their lives and their art. Their singing embodies music’s irrepressible power. In spite of the frequent upwellings of life-affirming music, there is something depressing about this movie: in the end it is the men who get the last word.