‘20 Feet from Stardom’ Review

From the first moment, ’20 Feet from Stardom’ inhale-exhales devotion. Devotion to a group of mega-talented performers who held up (and still do) the music industry during the come one come all simultaneous golden eras of soul, rock n’ roll, blues, jazz, funk, r&b- decades of human soul blessed vocal support by extraordinary professionals trained in churches across the United States. These are what we call back-up singers. Paid like they’re the parsley garnish, when, as this documentary brings to light, they are the ingredient, the method, the infusion of spice in the recipe of a best-selling band.

Forever in my mind, the vision of Merry Clayton’s description of her first meeting with the Stones says it all. Her hair is in curlers, her make-up washed away- she’s ready for bed, when the phone rings. It’s a call that will change her life. She jumps in a taxi, prepared to blow away these rock stars. She has zero doubt. Greeted by the sleepless band mates, she belts out a raunchy, husky, LOUD “it’s just a shot away”, and “Gimme Shelter” rushes in a stunning, visceral flood from the collective mind’s womb: the bloody, gasping life of a top 20 song- all thanks to Clayton, a singer with more skill and belly fire than any of the chart topping, gloriously wealthy voices of the rock scene. With this documentary, her name will be remembered, and yes, she still sings.

Through the smooth tunes and interview segments that welcome viewers warmly into the circle that sings, the topics taken on are heavy: classist industry and personal failure. The latter is a mystery, given how stunningly talented the cast is, but the proceeding point about classism is intricate and explains a lot. This isn’t classism in the sense of rich and poor, but of the valued and the undervalued; it isn’t reality, but perception that makes a star ring “potential” for producers. Unfortunately, perception was masked by dollar signs, even during a time when people purchased music (they had no choice) and there was a direct, more easily regulated form of profit. Most backups stayed and some still stay a few feet behind some better-managed star, at least in the big leagues.

Whomever the singers backed-up -Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen- they all tried to use those connections to break away and find their own spotlight. Consider it a paid apprenticeship, only that isn’t how it’s ever worked.Whoever can be marketed will succeed, as Sting explains in a short clip: it’s talent, but more about luck and who’s backing you and “the best people understand that and deal with it.” Ah, yes. In all industries, the ones who hit the ceiling have to deal with it. And they don’t all get to sit before a talented director’s camera to do it. Gladly, Morgan Neville opened the topic for a wider audience, with the grace of gorgeous lighting, smooth transitions, dare I say perfect sound editing, and a gentle way of telling a story of the struggle to reach stardom.

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