“20 Feet From Stardom” is a vibrant documentary about the talented vocalists who have been largely unnoticed by many of us despite their considerable contribution to the American music industry during the 1960-80s. As shown in the archival footage, many of their career highlights were usually next to spotlight but rarely in it, and they had a fair share of frustration and disappointment in their overlooked careers, but they passionately lived through their singing – and they now get the spotlight they richly deserve.
In case of Darlene Love, who has been relatively more recognized for her career compared to her peers since she started as the member of “The Blossoms”, she was one of the first African American female vocalists who broke into the mainstream during the early 1960s. Rock ‘n Roll music needed something new and lively during that time, and Love and her peers gave exactly what was needed through their exciting spontaneity acquired from their church gospel groups. Because they represented something different through their dynamic performances, their new style was immediately absorbed into the mainstream, and Love was soon picked by Phil Spector, a notorious music producer who both boosted and exploited her talent.
Merry Clayton also had an interesting life to tell as a voice inside many memorable songs. After she saw Ray Charles’ performance when she was young, she became determined to be a part of his backup singers(they were called “The Raelettes”), and, after she eventually got her wish, she continued to move on as working in various songs including the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”. In the middle of her interview, she tells about how she happened to be the main female vocal in that famous song, and that amusing story tells us how much artistic success depends on luck besides talent.
The documentary also introduces us to other backup singers including Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, and Táta Vega, and we hear about the ups and downs in their careers. Lisa Fischer, who has been leading a humble life in her small apartment in New York City, experienced several high points including a Grammy award and several tours with the Rolling Stones, but her career somehow went down as she tried to hold her place by herself. The same thing can be said about Táta Vega or Claudia Lennear; like Fischer, they all released their own solo album, but they did not become as successful as they initially hoped for.
As many people point out in the documentary, stardom is elusive for many reasons even when you are just a few feet from it. While it may be true that some of these women did not have enough right stuff for stardom despite their undeniable singing talent, many industry people merely regarded most of them as another Aretha Franklin or another Diana Ross rather another distinctive talent to watch, and that was all for them.
But they did not let that disappointment and accompanying economic hardship crush their spirits. Darlene Love experienced the financial bottom in her career after she broke up with Spector, and she almost gave up her career while trying to earn a living through menial jobs. She bounced back eventually, and now she gladly tells us her episode about how she happened to regain determination – and now I get another reason for fondly remembering “Christmas(Baby Please Come Home)”, the song which has usually been associated with the main title scene of “Gremlins”(1984) in my mind since I watched that movie when I was 9.
While they were not recognized much outside, they have been appreciated a lot by many prominent insiders of the music industry, and the director Morgan Neville assembled a stellar group of interviewees for his documentary. Lou Adler, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, Sting, Patti Austin, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, and other notable figures provide us some background information and insights along with interesting anecdotes, and many of them warmly reminisce about how nice it was to work with these talented women.
Neville deftly mixes interviews with music and archive footage for the effective presentation of their unsung careers, and we also see some of these ladies sing for themselves in front of the camera. Their careers are over or approaching to the end, but they still love that jubilant feeling coming from their singing, and they are still very good singers even though they passed their prime a long time ago. Lisa Fischer merely looks like your average middle-aged African American lady to us at first, but then, when she showcases her singing talent in the studio, we cannot help but think of what she could have been if she had been luckier.
The documentary does not lose its spirit much even after it bitterly recognizes the recent downturn of their profession due to the advance in recording technology. Their era is gone forever, but their next generation, mainly represented here by Judith Hill, follows their footsteps, and human voice is still being regarded by many as one of the valuable music instruments, no matter how easily one voice is duplicated into multiple voices by advanced recording technique.
“20 Feet from Stardom”, which was recently Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary and will probably win the award in the upcoming ceremony, is a respectful and sincere tribute to its subject. Through these wonderful artists, the documentary also did a terrific job of giving us a revealing look at an important but obscure part of the American music history, and I was both surprised and enlightened by many anecdotes told during the interviews. After watching this special documentary, I guarantee you, you may listen more closely to some of the famous songs you have been familiar with.