20 FEET FROM STARDOM
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Patti Austin, Bruce
Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger
Director: Morgan Neville
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Anchor Bay
Features: See Review
Length: 90 Minutes
Release Date: January 14, 2014
“Rape…murder…it’s just a shot away!” – “Gimme Shelter”, the Rolling Stones (vocal by Merry Clayton)
20 Feet From Stardom pays tribute to the unsung heroes of the sung: the backing vocalists.
From the Phil Spector era forward, these unheralded women (and men) helped create the “walls of sound” in production that helped make records exciting and made the stars in front of them sound their best.
I just wish this documentary were more interesting. The fatal flaw: it’s quite boring, despite the cultural history and the participants of some major-league musical talent like Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and others. Perhaps in this movie, as in music, we focus on the stars (even in small parts) and wait as patiently as possible for everyone else to finish so we can get back to them.
There’s no question that music fans owe gratitude to the likes of Darlene Love (who eventually entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Lisa Fischer (who remains one of the most sought-after backing singers, possibly to the detriment of her attempts at a solo career), and Patti Austin (who actually was one of the rare backers to achieve the spotlight for herself), and many others. And I know many who have found this film enchanting. I may just be a stick in the mud. I feel everyone is important, and everyone has a story, but not everybody has a story that will captivate an audience for 90 minutes.
The question is pondered: why are so many talented singers never able to make the transition to the front of the stage? I suppose many just have voices more suited to harmony, or many may just be better able to knock a few hooks out of the park rather than carry an entire piece of music alone. One example put forth for consideration is Merry Clayton. She might be most remembered for trading vocal licks with Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter”. She also got to deliver the backing punch to one of rock’s greatest anthems, Lynryd Skynryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, but did it with blatant hostility and loathing to the song and the state. We get a glimpse of her failed solo career, and see a woman screeching in our faces and pissed off about everything. At that point, we are NOT left wondering why she never made it.
The movie also seems to suggest that the era of the backing vocalist has come to an end. Music just isn’t produced to be big and expansive anymore; instead, it’s made with an ear toward highly compressed MP3s and digital downloads. The subtle sounds that used to make rock and soul records so immersive are lost. Modern production compacts everything. In fact, where once backing vocalists sometimes sang identical parts with the stars to help fatten the sound, now electronics can do all that with a flip of a switch.
This movie tries to remember those who made the hi-fi era happen, and mourns that many of them are out of the business and barely remembered. That’s a shame. Being 44, I know there will come a time when the dinosaurs like me have all shed our mortal coils, and there may be no one left to remember when music was played on big systems with big speakers to deliver big sounds. I still miss it.
However, for this film to be about a subject that is so near and dear to many of our hearts…our music…it sadly falls flat while trying to reach a high note.
This high definition transfer doesn’t make many demands, but the images are all clean and clear throughout, with no grain or distortions.
The bits of music drive the uncompressed audio track, and it’s quite satisfactory. Not as dynamic as I would like, but well-balanced and clean.
The disc includes 12 deleted scenes, a Q&A with director Morgan Neville and the stars, and a short film.
20 Feet From Stardom is about 20 feet from enthralling. It focuses on important and overlooked champions of pop music history, but in a way that just never quite leaps off the turntable.