Monday, April 07, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—20 Feet From Stardom (2013) ****

PG-13, 91 min.
Director: Morgan Neville
Featuring: Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Táta Vega, Patti Austin, Julia Waters, Maxine Waters, Oren Waters, Stevvi Alexander, Lou Adler, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, Dr. Mable John

Best Documentary Feature was one of my misses during this year’s Oscar predictions. “20 Feet From Stardom” was the winner. It was the only one of the bunch I hadn’t seen before the Oscars. I thought it was the fluff piece of the bunch. I was wrong. This stuff is nearly as depressing as oppression in Egypt and Indonesia, playing dirty in the Middle East, or an artist’s lifelong struggles. Well, “20 Feet From Stardom” is about many artists’ lifelong struggles.

Taking a look at an often overlooked role in American popular music, we meet several backup singers. Some we know, like Darleen Love, who, after an early Christmas single hit, spent most of the rest of her career trying to shake herself free from the backup stigma and become her own artist. Turns out she had to quit all together for a time in order to get a foothold on her own name, not to mention shaking the evil clutches of producer Phil Spector.

We meet several other very talented singers, whose names we don’t know, including the woman who sang the iconic female part of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. Another talented performer, Lisa Fischer, has spent the past twenty years singing that same part on tour with The Stones, despite winning a Grammy for her own debut album in the early 90s. And finally, an up and coming hopeful, who appeared on The Voice and was poised for superstardom as Michael Jackson’s primary duettist until his untimely death. Judith Hill is forced to take backup jobs to make a living while trying to break through as a solo artist.

Many superstars also appear in the doc. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Elton John and Bette Midler have the utmost respect for these talented singers, and yet I can’t help but sense that if one of them just lifted the right finger, they could perform a little magic for these respected but underappreciated artists.

Yeah, it still sounds like the fluff piece of the bunch, but to hear these women sing is to wonder just how an industry can have it all so backward. To see a Grammy winner struggle to pay her rent with her sheer, unbridled talent that surpassed all those superstars is to see an unfair world where the horrors of Egypt and Indonesia are a little more understandable. Why can’t people get it right? 

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