By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
When you think of songs like The Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter”, what stands out in your mind? Is it the guitar work? Sure, maybe. How about Mick Jagger’s vocals? Possibly. Give it a listen below and let me know.
It’s the soaring female vocals (“RAPE… MURDER… It’s just a shot away!”) that really make the song, isn’t it? Can you even name who sung those?
Well, after watching 20 Feet from Stardom, you should be able to (the answer is Merry Clayton). This documentary examines the unsung heroes of the last half century of Pop music, the backup vocalists.
It’s really hard to see somebody with even a passing interest in pop or rock music not being fascinated by this film. It’s likely that you’ve never put much thought into who sings backup for the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles’s, Stevie Wonders, and David Bowies of the world, but it’s impossible to deny that their music would be fundamentally different without their backup singers.
This documentary does an excellent job of interviewing an array of backup vocalists and the headliners they helped make famous, and not only convinces us of their vital support, but of how incredibly of artists they are in their own right. It also functions as a great primer to the history not only of backup vocals, but of popular music since the 1960s.
And what a journey it’s been, not just for Bowie.
What I found even more fascinating than all of that, though, is the peek at the music industry meatgrinder that the film provides. Of course many of these women (they’re all women, of course) had their own dreams of stardom, and with voices like theirs, justifiably. However, most of them joined very young, often as teenagers, and music producers and studios took advantage of that at every opportunity, from using their vocals to make lip-syncing stars of other young women (Phil Spector) to adding “booty-shaking eye candy” to their resumes, whether they liked it or not (Ike Turner).
When some of them did try to strike out on their own later in their careers, the industry chewed them up and spit them out in other ways. Through it all, though, these women show both their incredible resilience, and their indelible talent. It’s a fascinating journey, and a fascinating subject for a documentary.
Oh, and of course, this film has plenty of incredible music.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this isn’t quite on the level of, say, The Act of Killing (which better win that Oscar!). While it’s fairly conventionally made, there are a few inventive filmmaking scenes here and there. It doesn’t do the best job of differentiating the different backup singers, particularly those of the same generation, but that complaint could be laid at the feet of my attention span. I suppose the one piece of the puzzle this film lacked was the thought process of the studio heads and hitmakers themselves regarding these backup singers. Obviously, you’re not getting Phil Spector, but an interview by anyone of his ilk would have added some valuable perspective to the proceedings.
A be-wigged Al Pacino would have been an acceptable compromise.
Particularly if you’re a music fan, this is a can’t miss documentary about a little-explored but vital part of Pop music as we know it.
Take a Drink: whenever a classic song is referenced
Take a Drink: for gospel music
Take a Drink: whoah, you’re 70?
Take a Drink: shush up, Sting
Do a Shot: Hey look, Phil Spector and Ike Turner are up to some shady shit!