When I heard that 20 Feet From Stardom won the Oscar for Best Documentary, I was annoyed but not surprised. I was hoping against hope that the Academy would grow some balls and award The Act of Killing the Oscar. Just like the rest of the wins that night, safe choices won out over surprising the audience. As a result of this decision, I harbored resentment for a pleasant movie that almost universally championed. In fact I watched this movie for the sole purpose of ripping it apart here. But I can’t bring myself to tear it a new one…. because I liked it.
20 Feet From Stardom tells the story of back up singers and their rise to prominence in the mid-sixties with a focus on four prominent back up singers. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill all get turns showcasing their skills as well as their stories. Each one wanted (or want) to make it big, but life got in their way and chose for them the path of blending in. Some are content with where they are now, some are trying hard to make it big on their own, but their fall back will always to be touring with famous musicians and making their songs richer and more dynamic.
What I found the most interesting is listening to the iconic songs that these women sang on and realizing how much they actually contributed to the sound of it. They can take a sonically boring song and add depth and life by just singing a slightly different note than the lead singer. The most interesting example of this is Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones. Merry Clayton was the original singer to record this with Mick Jagger and she gave the iconic breakdown in the middle of song where she just belted out “Rape, Murder” several times. But it was Lisa Fischer that made it into performance art. (The Rolling Stones ditched an older singer that still had pipes for a sexier and younger one… but she still had pipes) She would build on the theme by skating and moaning when she is given the center stage. For other songs, the documentarian took out the main lyrics and just let you hear the back up vocals. It is surprising how much your ear just glosses over those voices in favor of the dominant one, but how actually interesting when taken on its own it is.
This film tackles more complex than just back up singers, because these women have had complicated histories. They talk about being discounted as nothing more than pieces of meat (Especially the back up singer who was a part of Ike and Tina Turner’s band.), about singing on songs that discounted their African-American heritage (every back up singer prominently featured in this movie is black), and about the realization that the main stage may never happen for them. While they discuss these issues, you can see just how strong each woman is. They are able to laugh and carry on with their lives even when they are stuck cleaning houses or singing “Sweet Home Alabama.” This is what makes this movie good. This is what makes the movie inspiring. This is why the movie won the Oscar. I guess I am okay with the win… Just barely though.