Don't miss the documentary "20 Feet from Stardom," now playing at the Palm Theatre
( www.thepalmtheatre.com ) . 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.