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.

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