Saturday, May 24, 2014

"20 Feet From Stardom", dir. Morgan Neville

There are plenty of impressive things about this documentary.  The celebrity roll call, which includes Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen, is eye opening to say the least.  The big celebs speak better to the importance and admiration for the background singers than the background singers themselves do, which in a roundabout way, turns out to be the single biggest weakness of the film.

This film came off like a series of disjointed interviews that relies on name dropping and the aforementioned star power to make its case.  The irony of the background singers (who in large part, for various reasons, couldn't make it as solo artists) needing their superstar friends to tell their story for them seems to be completely lost on the director.

The film floats several reasons why they never became stars in their own right.  Many simply loved their roles as background singers and had little desire to do anything else.  Others were afraid, or lacked the confidence to stand centre stage, and learned to accept their background role.  Yet we also see them getting singing duets or even getting featured solos as part of stadium tours, and writing songs for the breakthrough solo album that may never get recorded.  So which is it?  Are they missing the "charisma gene" (as implied by Springsteen) or is a matter of never being afforded the opportunity to shine by a myopic music industry?  The movie never takes sides, but it really should have.  Documentaries should have a point of view.  Beyond the obvious degree of admiration for what they do, I left the theatre not having a clue how the director really felt about most of these people.

The highlights include Merry Clayton's story about getting woken up in middle of the night and called in to record "Gimme Shelter" with the Rolling Stones, and every scene featuring Darlene Love.        

Short aside: in the pre-film lecture by Yashiv Cohen, which focused on the gospel roots of soul and R&B, I realized that there's not much of a leap between The Soul Stirrers' "I'm a Soldier" and The Velvet Underground's "Heroin".  At the risk of sounding silly and ignorant, has this drone rock gospel been hiding in plain sight all this time and I didn't realize it?

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