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kicking up a fuss since 1997 | by maryann johanson

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20 Feet from Stardom: raw real voices

20 Feet from Stardom green light

This must-see documentary for any fan of modern pop music introduces us to the extraordinary women you didn’t know were behind some of the songs you know by heart.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Who are the colored girls who, as Lou Reed sang, go “do do-do do-do”? Who is the woman behind that spine-chilling refrain of “Rape, murder / It’s just a shot away / It’s just a shot away” on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”? This fantastic film — from veteran music documentarian Morgan Neville, and a must-see for any fan of modern pop music, from rock to R&B to soul — introduces us to the extraordinary women you didn’t know were behind some of the songs you know by heart. They are mostly black women, many the daughters of ministers and pastors who honed their talents singing in church choirs. In interviews with them here, they are profoundly generous as they talk about their work making some of the biggest stars in music — from Bruce Springsteen to Bette Midler to Stevie Wonder to the late Luther Vandross — sound better while receiving little to no recognition for themselves: they speak of the joys of collaboration, of being a chameleon, of contributing to a larger sound. And all while some of these women were royally screwed over by the industry in their attempts to have their own careers — Darlene Love, for instance, receives no royalties from her hugely popular 1963 holiday song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” — or whose solo careers floundered for any number of reasons: Lisa Fischer, whose voice is glorious, won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1992, and now she sings backup for Sting (who seems confounded in his attempts to praise her highly enough here) and tours with the Rolling Stones, performing, among other bits, that “Rape, murder” refrain that Merry Clayton (also interviewed here) sang on the original recording. But the “raw real sound” that these women provide might be — like so much else in our increasingly digitized pop culture — on its way out. Auto-Tune, sampling, and other recording tricks are rendering them superfluous in the eyes of some; younger acts, they complain, see them as nothing more than onstage eye candy. Sting, Fischer, and others point out, too, that the difference between the stars and the unknowns isn’t talent, but ambition, luck, ego, and a willingness to play the right games. Still, it’s hard not to be left with an impression that makes this film a perfect companion to another of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries, Cutie and the Boxer: that women artists who support men get bulldozed in the process.


US/Canada release date: Jun 14 2013 | UK release date: Mar 28 2014

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material
BBFC: rated 12A (contains infrequent strong language)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • Bluejay

    So glad you liked this! Lisa Fischer is a revelation. And for those watching on DVD, be sure to hit “play all” on the deleted scenes, which include more amazing singing by people who didn’t necessarily make the theatrical cut.

    I’m not sure that “raw real sound” is on its way out; there are plenty of current artists and bands embracing the old-school analog aesthetic, if you know where to look. In any case, I’m glad these women are getting the recognition they deserve for paving the way.

    Also: she wasn’t featured in this film, but I just have to say that hiring Oleta Adams was one of the best decisions Tears for Fears ever made.

  • RogerBW

    I don’t see this as specifically a women’s thing — what about someone like the late Isaac Guillory, who made the sound of a whole bunch of famous groups but never got more than a session guitar man’s credit? And whose ilk also being replaced by a sample library.

    Interesting, nonetheless.

  • RogerBW

    I think that “mainstream” pop is getting increasingly computer-generated — but also increasingly unpopular, as it costs more and more to hypnotise the kiddies into buying it instead of the stuff they actually like. (Obviously that’s all the fault of MUSIC PIRATES.)

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Backup singers are, though, almost 100 percent women.

    Someone should make this doc about session musicians.

  • RogerBW

    And I suspect the backup singer is likely to stay with a single star for longer.

  • Bluejay

    Digital music isn’t going anywhere, obviously. (And some of it is quite good, I think; like any tool, it can be used well or poorly.) But I don’t think “analog” (i.e. traditional band-oriented music and genuinely talented singers) is exactly an endangered species, even in “mainstream” pop. If we take the Grammys as an indication of commercial success, the previous two winners for Best Album have been Adele and Mumford and Sons, hardly digital creations; this year’s winner, Daft Punk, is being celebrated for — gasp! — using a real band playing real instruments. The current Billboard Top 20 album chart has Frozen at the top, which has traditional Broadway-style songs including the power ballad that’s probably going to win Best Song tonight; the list also includes Bruno Mars and John Legend, who have pretty old-school approaches to music, and the phenomenal Lake Street Dive (who’ve been making the rounds on Colbert and Letterman). The a cappella group Pentatonix has tens of millions of views on YouTube, and their album hit #1 on the iTunes pop chart the week of its release. So I think it’s fair to say that “analog” is holding its own, and the people who want to find it are finding it.

  • Danielm80

    Have you heard The Sea, The Sea? They might be your style.

  • Bluejay

    Thanks! I just checked them out, and they’re lovely.

    Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s versions of the Child Ballads are also very good. (As is Mitchell’s Hadestown.) The best male/female folk duo I’ve heard in a long time was the Civil Wars, and I’m still heartbroken about them…