Sunday 6 April 2014

20 Feet From Stardom

Never underestimate the underdog. This week I was back at the pictures, first to see 20 Feet From Stardom.

For a music lover like me, the poster for this film is pretty eye-catching; glitzy, glamorous, and with a cast list that reads “Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Bette Midler”… But, for once, this lot aren’t the stars of the show. The real leading ladies are those that usually shy away at the back; the incredibly talented backing singers. Morgan Neville’s film looks at the (ironically) “unsung heroes behind the greatest music of our time”.

I hadn’t heard of the film until the night of the Oscars, when it picked up the award for best documentary, and after the nomination clip and the sound of a harmonious chorus in the studio, I knew I wanted to see it. The screening I went to was more than half-empty, but I can only hope this is because everyone has seen it already.

If you know your musical stuff, or were around at the time, you may recognise some of the names, most notably Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. Up until the introduction of Love’s group The Blossoms in the early 1960s, the pop world had been dominated by all-white back-ups who, although successful, were a little too well-behaved for the music that was to come. When The Blossoms boomed, everyone loved their gospel-influenced sound, and bands and singers across the world wanted to know how to get their hands on them.

Throughout the film, we watch and listen as the singers recollect their journeys to the stage, as well as their battles when they got there and sadly, the fall of many great talents. In the case of Darlene Love, her story is haunted by disloyal producers who cheated her out of her much deserved recognition, and then many, like Merry Clayton, failed at making the big-time, despite singing some of the greatest riffs of the time.

But don’t think the movie is one big sob story; there are great anecdotes (did you know Merry recorded “Gimme Shelter” in her curlers and silk pyjamas?) and I was goose-bumped all over from titles to credits. 20 Feet From Stardom also introduced me to some incredible voices, such as Tata Vega and Lisa Fischer. Get onto Youtube for a sneaky preview or if you’re like me, you’ll be downloading the soundtrack on iTunes.

If I’m being really nit-picking, there were a few downsides, the biggest one being that, despite wanting to bring the backing singers to the front of the stage, there were STILL some people who were interviewed without ever hearing them sing or tell their story. But I wouldn’t let that ruin my enjoyment of the film. 20 Feet From Stardom is like one big concert, which I will happily watch again and again and again.

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