Film review: 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, from Built For Speed

Nick’s rating: Four stars.

Genre: Documentary.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Morgan Neville.

Release date: 21st Nov 2013

Running time:  91 mins.

Music fans do not want to miss the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom which treats us to the remarkable talents of rock’s great back-up singers.  The film focuses on the work of Darlene Love who has sung with The Beach Boys, Tom Jones and Elvis Presley among many others and also sang the original version of “Christmas Baby Please Come Home” from the legendary Phil Spector Christmas album.   The film also features Merry Clayton who has performed with a panalopy of stars and sang on The Rolling Stones’ magnificent “Gimme Shelter”, Lisa Fischer who sang with Tina Turner and the Stones, Judith Hill who became Michael Jackson’s main back-up vocalist and Tata Vega who has worked with Elton John, Ray Charles, Madonna and many others.

Through interviews and wonderful archival footage, the film documents the women’s – and in a couple of cases men’s – experiences working with rock legends.  Some of the superstars with whom they have worked, including Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger as well as various music historians, are briefly interviewed but it’s the women who hold centre-stage.

While the women generally speak highly of the people with whom they have worked, they also relate some galling tales of the way the music industry has treated them. Darlene Love describes how she recorded a lead vocal on the Phil Spector produced “He’s a Rebel” only to find her voice credited to The Crystals who earned a hit with the record.

In addition to documenting their phenomenal back-up work, the film looks at these singers’ often painful struggle to forge solo careers.  The transition from the back to the front of the stage has been remarkably difficult for many of these women and some have sadly given up altogether. It’s heartbreaking to learn that, because of contractual issues and an overwhelming desire not to work with Phil Spector, Darlene Love was forced to clean houses for years.

Amid the reminiscences are sensational performances that provide bittersweet insights into talents that in many cases haven’t been adequately recognised. Hearing Merry Clayton’s isolated vocal track from the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is spine-tingling.

The revelation in this film, though, though is Lisa Fischer who, despite hitting stratospheric notes on her Grammy winning solo single “How Can I Ease the Pain”, achieved little mainstream recognition.  Fortunately, she landed an amazing gig as lead female vocalist with the Rolling Stones in 1989. One astonishing segment of the film features her performing several vocal parts which are multi-tracked making her voice sound like a gospel choir.

Obviously, this documentary could not accommodate every significant back-up singer of the rock era and Australian audiences may regret the absence of someone like Venetta Fields but the women featured are all worthy and their stories are riveting.

The film is about the women and their singing talents so those looking for classic stories of rock’n’roll debauchery may be disappointed.  Music fans who want to spend 90 minutes in the company of some charming, passionate and amazingly talented people, however, will be well rewarded.

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