Tuesday, March 11, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom

Defining the subtle, but game changing, differences between talent and stardom 

     We didn’t see 20 Feet from Stardom at the cinema (or many of the other eventual Oscar nominees) because we had other things happening.  I caught it on Movies on Demand and it’s a
deeply affecting movie for anyone who loves music since it’s about backup singers.  Director Morgan Neville focuses
on some of the major singers who have backed up the stars and generally stood ten to twenty feet away from them.  

     The ethnic dynamic over the past sixty years intrigues.  It was based primarily on white male singers, such as Perry Como in one clip, with white female background singers.  They were supposed to sound ‘sweet.’  Simultaneously, in the R&B world, it was black male singers with black female backup singers in a ‘call and response’ format that had originated in African American Baptist churches.  The British Invasion brought in white male singers, who wanted black female backup singers and this practice expanded to include American male and female star singers, who adopted many of the same performers.  

Darlene Love Today
     The backup singers include Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill among others.  Their wonderful voices are off set by lives that have seen joy and hardship.  They’re survivors, but the question keeps reasserting itself of the nature of stardom.  Bruce Springsteen speaks of ego and its attendant tyranny, whereas Mick Jagger points out what a star has to deal with outside of singing.  Only Sting sounds patronizing when he talks about being spiritually prepared for stardom.  It’s rich to me since I think he’s coasted for over two decades.  On the other hand, he’s a wonderful collaborator in a rehearsal.  I guess if Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers had been backup singers, The Police might not have broken up.

     Darlene Love’s annual Christmas appearance on Letterman has been a fixture for us, but to see and learn more of Love’s career is a tragedy. She was basically a pawn for Phil Spector’s ego – he was the one who wanted to be a star.  She led The Blossoms, a group that basically did most of the singing for Spector, but received little credit.  However, those in the business were well aware of her contributions.  Lisa Fischer’s voice is a force field of elasticity.  She can sound like almost anything, which may be one reason that her sound is not one of stardom; it’s not immediately identifiable.  She seems at peace with her lot in the business and life.  Her personal authenticity astonishes, especially when compared to Mariah Carey, who came up at the same time and has always seemed like an animatronic to me, at least in her public persona.  

Luther Vandross as a Backup Singer
     Ironically, of those featured, the backup singer that made it to stardom was Luther Vandross.  It underlines one important point, which is that those in the business can only see so many stars – specifically, African American stars – in any given era.  There were no other male soul crooners when Vandross moved from backup to lead, but there was already Aretha, Diana, and Dionne (who moved from demo singer to star because she could sing Burt Bacharach’s complex time signatures) when Darlene Love was trying to star.  It’s both sexist and racist, but it feels uncomfortably accurate.

     I think many can relate to this because haven’t we all wondered why someone got a break that we privately thought we deserved more?  As an examination of performance and talent, it works.  Where it achieves something more classic is that elusive combination of luck, timing, and desire in considering who rises to the top and who has to find ways to feel otherwise satisfied.

Darlene Love Sings Their Oscar Acceptance Speech
     Postscript:  20 Feet from Stardom won the Oscar and Darlene Love sang a few phrases during the acceptance speech.  She earned a standing ovation, proving that yes she was a star all the time.

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