Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: 20 Feet from Stardom

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

20 Feet from Stardom celebrates some of the unsung heroes of pop music, especially in the early decades. These are the background singers whose voices we hear in early girl groups and songs by artists as disparate as Sting, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, and on and on.

Their vocal stylings helped fill out the music of the rock-and-roll generation. We sang along to their parts on the records and they were rarely, if ever, credited. Let’s keep in mind that instrumentalists find themselves in similar situations, adding guitars, keyboards, or drum tracks to songs without so much as a “thank you.” They are studio musicians and that’s what they’re paid for. But in the early 60s some of these women were the actual singing voices behind the more stylish and sexy figure that the record companies preferred for TV and album covers.

Some have gotten their due in recent years, none more than Darlene Love, who was inducted at long last into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some have attempted solo records, but in nearly all cases sales were flat. There’s a special combination of luck and chemistry and timing that makes a pop recording artist more famous than others. Having tremendous talent often has little to do with it (and that’s been true pretty much since the beginning of music recording).

Director Morgan Neville tells their story tells their story with dignity and a bit of reverence. Some of the biggest names in music are on hand to give their thoughts on those background singers who appear on stage and on their records, but will never be on the marquee. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Mick Jagger all express a great deal of respect and awe for what they do.

For my money, the greatest vocal artist featured is Lisa Fischer, who provided the “rape…murder” background chorus for The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” We get to see her recording with Sting and she tells the story of how she got to work with The Stones in the first place. To listen to her sing is just heavenly. The result is a movie that not only tells a great story about people you’ve heard but never heard of, but also reminds us that the faux-celebrities churned out by shows like “American Idol” have zero talent. Their vocal abilities pale in comparison to what the fabulous women featured in 20 Feet from Stardom can do. These singers have training, they have soul, style, and professionalism. It is one of the great pleasures of movies to spend 80 minutes with them.

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