Thursday, July 25, 2013

20 Feet, Indeed

Don't miss the documentary "20 Feet from Stardom," now playing at the Palm Theatre
 ( ) .  It tells the tale of some of the best known of rock and roll's  "back up" singers.  Originally, all back up singers in the 1950's were nice, neatly dressed, boring white ladies standing behind Perry Como or Dean Martin and politely adding harmony.  With the breakout of rock and roll, black music came onto the main stage, yes, too often hijacked by white performers, but black back up singers came too, and transformed popular music. (The clips of powerhouse Tina Turner, with her mile high legs topping a holy-cow! fringed mini-mini-miniskirt and her crazy-assed, berserker back up ladies reminds one just how electric and transformative they were.  And young.  Oh, so young.) 

The whole phenomenon of "back up" singing never really crossed my radar, which is what made this film so interesting -- 90 minutes of muttering, "Gosh, I didn't know that."  The talent on display is phenomenal, the survival of these women, most of whom are still singing is heartening (they're still singing back up for movie sound tracks, records, with a few "out front," still touring with Springsteen and The Rolling Stones). 

But ultimately, it's the documentary's unfolding disquisition on "fame" and "talent" and "art" and " music" and "soul" that haunts:  How rare it is to achieve stardom, how little fame has to do with talent or hard work.  How divorced fame and stardom are from true greatness and art.  How breaking out from the background can be too high a price to pay (as so many artists who achieved fame discovered, then paid for  with their disordered, self-destructive lives). How transforming from a back up to the solo role is, in many ways, impossible -- a case of turning a tap dancer into an opera diva  -- because there are two entirely different talents  at work; one standing alone, the other tuned exquisitely to creating a whole. And how, ultimately, fame is a game of luck, its value fleeting, while the work -- the song, the voice, the music -- is its own gift, its own demanding taskmaster, its own reward.

After seeing the film, I thought the title had it's own irony.  Given the talent and musicianship of these women, I think it is the lead singers who are 20 feet from greatness. Not the other way around.  



Billy Dunne said...

“It’s a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is……complicated.”

Thanks again Ann for recommending this absolute gem of a movie. We smiled throughout, shed the temptation to get sad at the unfair randomness of fate’s fortunes (although I caught my wife dabbing her eyes more than once), and relished the connections between the “background” singers and the SONGS, which, sans their vocals, would just be, well, ordinary songs.

Try to listen to “Gimme Shelter” without Merry Clayton (and later Lisa Fischer) yelling “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!”

Or Ray Charles singing “What I’d Say” and groaning “Hey” without the Raylettes answering back “Oh.”

There’s so much to this documentary: fame, fortune, luck, perseverance, and what David Letterman calls the genetic crapshoot. But I was really struck by how beautiful these women were, many approaching their 70’s (if they’re not there already.) Then I remembered Lisa Fischer saying “Some people will do anything to achieve fame. And some people just sing.” Perhaps by not chasing the fame rabbit, and just singing from their souls, saved them from a real world of hurt. To me at least, it shows.

I’ve always said Phil Specter should be serving another life sentence in prison for trying to murder Darlene Love’s career. But for me, the holiday season never becomes the Holiday Season! until she sings “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on Letterman. Pure Joy.

That 20 foot walk to the front is complicated. And I probably never would have given it a thought without seeing this wonderful documentary.

Ann Calhoun said...

Billy. Amen. That's what made this documentary so haunting, the way the "complications" were slowly revealed. One of the singers noted that if she hadn't stepped back, she'd be dead now. And Sting's dead-on-the-mark observation that making music, great music, is really soul work and if you don't do the work, your "fame" or success will be very thin indeed. Which makes your observation apt, that these women were given life by singing from their souls, which is the "work" Sting was referencing. Too true. This is really a "complicated" and revelatory film.

And, yes, Phil Spectre (and a lot like him) deserve a special place in hell for what he (and they) did to too many talented people in the Music Biz.

Say, did you guys go see Lone Ranger? What did you think of it? (Are you reviewing plays anymore for NT? Or have I got you confused with someone else?)

Billy Dunne said...

Haven't gotten to Lone Ranger yet, much to my chagrin. Lon Allen over at the Trib didn't like it, which makes me even more determined to see it. It has quickly disappeared from the local screens, so I might have to catch the DVD.

The Way Way Back looks intriguing, no?

And thanks for my morning brain teaser. No, I'm not the New Times guy, but you left me obsessing, which I'm wont to do: "who WAS that guy and what was his name?" I don't know how I did it, but Billy Houck came into my mind. After a Google search, I think that's it. It seems he left the area 3 years ago or so.

Ann Calhoun said...

Billy, Yeah, maybe that's who I got you confused with. Think Lon Allen didn't "get" the Lone Ranger. He was still stuck back in the 1950's, doesn't realize that it's all The New Irony Generation now.

Want to see, The Way Way Back. Did go see, Unfinished Song. Sweet, predictable, but miscast. Terrance Stamp is just too . . . "trim," too "organized," too "disciplined" an actor to play the grumpy disaster of a character called for. So the misfit kept him slipping out of believability. He kept toggling between sweet Billy Bud and Superman's arch nemesis, General Zod or whatever his name was. The film was sorta based on that wonderful documentary a few years ago, about a bunch of old folks who formed a chorus to sing rock and roll. That was really a great movie.