Alternate Title: Twenty Feet from Stardom
In the world of music, it seems there are two types of people. On the one hand you have those who live for the kind of feeling you can only get from a stadium full of people screaming your name and applauding until you encore to the point that they’ll do anything to become (and stay) famous. On the other hand, there are those who are in it for love – the ones who just simply love to sing, play or perform for the sake of music itself.
Of the two, as an interviewee eloquently puts it in filmmaker Morgan Neville’s passionately made and deeply personal documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, the latter is the one that comes from a much purer, higher calling.
Yet as we learn again and again in this important and long overdue cinematic ode to the unsung heroes of popular music who have sung their hearts out for over sixty years on some of the greatest singles in the history of the art form, the move from back of the stage to front-and-center is incredibly hard to make.
A twenty-foot path – the journey from singing backup to taking over that microphone as a solo artist or front-person – is repeatedly described as one of the longest and most fraught with peril journeys that a singer can make.
As Bruce Springsteen admits, it’s “more of a mental leap” than a physical one. Lead singers, the film notes, must possess a natural sense of ego and narcissism along with a strong desire to sing in one unique voice verses the chameleon like role of a backup singer who can change their sound quite drastically from one tune to the next while putting the good of the group’s sound before themselves. And in a field that thrives on unique “star quality,” it’s this reversal of thinking and this strong sense of paradigm shift for those attempting to make the leap that often gets in the way.
As most often the world’s very best backup singers first started out performing as children in church choirs, this ability to avoid fixating on your own musical persona and instead “lock in” with the other voices and instruments on a given piece is something they’ve done their whole life.
A rare instinctive gift that can’t be taught, this technique is coveted by the biggest names in music to elevate some of our greatest songs in order to make them that much more soulful, more human and more visceral than anything that can be done on a computer.
In fact, even though we’re unfamiliar with most of the backup singers’ names, as soon as we hear them sing, we realize we know their versatile, instantly recognizable voices and find ourselves repeatedly awed by their ability to adapt their sound so completely from one smash record to the next.
And although their role has been highlighted in rock history as “the colored girls” that sing “do do do” in Lou Reed’s famous yet off-putting “Walk On the Wild Side” refrain, the interviewees on film argue that there’s power in his allusion to them and their role as proud members of a “musical sisterhood.”
Furthermore 20 Feet reasons that since they’re the ones bringing to life pop music’s instantly addictive hooks, they’re actually the ones that we sing along with in our cars on classics such as The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” where Merry Clayton’s cry of “Rape, Murder” being a shot away still packs her intended punch of blowing Mick Jagger and the boys out of the room.
Historically overlooked, whether they were hired to “sound white” or help rock ‘n rollers “sound black," become “the first action figures of R&B” as the exciting song and dance vixens that backed up Ike Turner or help secularize church music by moaning Ray Charles’ sexy form of call and response to “ghosting” for The Crystals, their fascinating stories run the gamut. From mezzo soprano diva highs to blues-worthy lows, we hear it all including near wall-to-wall music that helps bring their tales to life.
Featuring rare, original recordings and snippets of live performances – this pitch perfect Blu-ray looks as stellar as it sounds in its 1080p high-definition film transfer.
The highest-grossing documentary of 2013 and one that’s earned a richly deserved Academy Award nomination for the category, this gorgeous Blu-ray release debuts on the same day as other cinematic celebrations of African-American filmmaking including Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the Blu-ray release of In the Heat of the Night just in time for the Martin Luther King holiday.
While a bonus soundtrack disc or Ultraviolet HD digital copy would’ve served as an added attraction to the stellar feature film, the undeniably informative, crowd-pleasing documentary which chronicles the art form’s history up through recent years remains a vital, must-see cinematic portrait of the singers who’ve helped tell the story of popular music one gorgeously sung note at a time.
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