Sunday, March 2, 2014

That's Me in the Spotlight

Readers who were embarrassed by my gushing, fulsome review of The T.A.M.I. Show might want to skip this post. But definitely don't skip the movie 20 Feet from Stardom (2013).

20 Feet is a documentary about backup singers - like the "colored girls" in Lou Reed's songs. They are the anonymous voices that support the lead singer with sweet harmonies or soulful cries. You may have heard of one or two of these voices, like Darlene Love, but you have definitely sung along with the other, like Merry Clayton (Gimme Shelter, Sweet Home Alabama), Lisa Fischer (Sting, Rolling Stones), Tata Vega (Stevie Wonder, The Color Purple). This movie gives you faces to go along with the voices.

First, a couple of downsides:
  1. A major theme of the movie is the question of fame: What puts some people in the spotlight, and leaves some in the chorus? Is it talent, luck, ambition, or do some people just prefer to take a paycheck and go home? The movie seems to lean toward the latter view, but constantly subverts it with stories about how these singers wanted to solo but couldn't break in. 
  2. Although the movie puts names and faces to the previously anonymous singers, it weaves their stories together in a way that suggests that they are interchangeable. In fact, after talking about one singers solo album, it panned down a whole long gallery of obscure solo albums released by other backup singers. Sure, it was a common fate, but these are individuals.
  3. There are just too many stories, singers and songs that had to be left out to keep it down to ~90 minutes.
But these issues are all swept away by the awesome power of these (mostly) black women's voices. Almost every clip they played sent chills up my spine, and I had tears in my eyes by about the 10-minute mark. The stories are interesting, the singers are fascinating, but their songs - both backup and solo - are amazing.

If the movie leaves you wanting more, you might want to check out the director, Morgan Neville, talking with Elvis Mitchell on his podcast The Treatment. Lots more stories and discussion, lots of fun.

In conclusion, they didn't even mention the greatest backup group ever, the Sweet Inspirations. Too famous, maybe?

Update, 3 Mar 2014: Looks like this won Academy Award for Best Documentary. The only nominee I watched this year, too.

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