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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Oscar Nominee 20 FEET FROM STARDOM Shines a Spotlight on the Voices Behind Your Favorite Songs


I don't know about you, but when I listen to "Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones or "Hit the Road Jack" by Ray Charles, I don't stop to wonder who are the soulful singers providing the amazing background vocals. That's probably because I'm too busy singing offbeat over their memorable hooks, not really paying attention to their voices. When they enter the song, that's really my time to sing. I wait for that point in the song so I can belt out those lyrics louder than anyone. Whether I know the actual lyrics or not.

Which is why the Oscar-nominated documentary 20 FEET FROM STARDOM directed by Morgan Neville is so special to watch. It takes you away from your miming routine to show you who the wonderful talent is you've been imitating all these years. In doing so, their stories and experiences come bursting to the forefront. They become more than simply the powerful wall of sound that uplifts these recognizable songs, as they share their remarkable career highs, devastating setbacks and dreams deferred.

Take, for instance, Merry Clayton, the impassioned 65-year-old vocalist who provided the War, children, it's just a shot away verse on 1969's "Gimme Shelter". Though she was undeniably a gifted solo artist, she failed to gain chart appeal and immersed herself in the world of background vocals. But rather than turning her story into one of disappointment, the film details how she gained respect within the industry--Mick Jagger even appears to vouch for Clayton's indelible contributions.

But, as the film's title indicates, there is a hint of longing in the voices of these unsung heroes. While the talent they bring to these famous songs demands appreciation, they share how their successes and stage intimacy only made them desire superstardom that much more. They realize how close they are to their dreams, yet so far away at the same time. You can see that sentiment captured in Darlene Love's story. The 72-year-old singer, who lent her vocals to songs by icons such as Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, and Sonny and Cher, talks about feeling trapped in the background. After catching the attention of producer Phil Spector in 1962, she soon realized that he had boxed her in as a background vocalist despite her immense talent. She recounts how frustrated she was, while reminiscing about her days traveling with popular recording artists like Ike and Tina Turner. A key moment in the film is when she discusses how she had taken a break from her career and began making a living cleaning houses, until she heard her own voice on the radio singing her solo hit, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," at which time she remembered her true calling and knew she couldn't just walk away from her dreams.

The same goes for 55-year-old Lisa Fischer and 29-year-old Judith Hill, who many of us already know and love. While Hill has gained momentum with her stint on TV's The Voice, she is most notable for singing with Michael Jackson in his posthumous concert documentary, This Is It. She remarks how fans saw her performing background for Ashlee Simpson and said she was better than that. To which she responds, work is work on the road to success. Meanwhile, Fischer is a Grammy-winning solo artist for her single "How Can I Ease the Pain," which should have propelled her to stardom but reveals in the piece how "they just didn't know what to do with me." But, perhaps most importantly, she admits she's not sure if the limelight is even for her. (Ironically, another singer in the film affirms that if she had made it past the background, she might have become an addict, unable to handle the fame). It's an interesting dilemma: Where do your dreams go when they're unattained, and how do you nourish your dreams once they've been accomplished?

That's what makes 20 FEET FROM STARDOM so accessible. While there are moments in the film awkwardly placed to achieve moments of pensiveness from the talent, what it does well is offers a point of view where there wasn't before. It also shows how a rock ballad like "Gimme Shelter" or a pop classic like "River Deep, Mountain High" are propelled by the expressive voices of these women. They aren't so much background singers as they are collaborators who make the songs duets, hooks that cannot be ignored. Without them, these classics would not have been the same.

Rating: B+ (**** out of *****)

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