NOTE: The 86th Academy Awards will be presented on March 2, 2014. The film treated here is nominated for Best Documentary Feature.Where falls the line between history and entertainment in modern depictions of popular music history? A recent film called 20 Feet From Stardom is the latest in a series of big-budget revisionist documentaries to bring this issue to the foreground. Similar to movies like Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Muscle Shoals, and The Wrecking Crew, all of which focus on relatively unknown instrumental backing groups, 20 Feet From Stardom seeks to uncover the hidden history and often-transparent role that background vocalists have played in recordings and live performances of rock and R&B since the early 1960s. A common goal of these documentaries is to force viewers to revisit their assumptions about elements of power and agency in the creative process of pop music, and 20 Feet From Stardom is a riveting piece that achieves this objective in a stunning manner.
20 Feet From Stardom is nominated for an Oscar this year, and its cultural impact has been great. There is real media buzz about the lives and work of Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, and Tata Vega, the six vocalists featured most prominently in the story. Love, in particular, seems to have a new lease on life as a result of the film. Related tours and recordings are already in the works, and Hill, the youngest and most ascendant of the group, will most likely enter the fold of mainstream stardom in the coveted lead vocalist role during the coming years. In the wake of the film’s success it was even announced that Mick Jagger, who has worked with many of the film’s stars and provides commentary throughout the documentary, plans to launch a television series and Broadway musical based on the Stardom theme.
There is a reason the film is so powerful. Like other projects of this type, Stardom exposes audiences to the creative methods used to fashion some of the most enduring music of the Baby Boomer soundtrack. Darlene Love is the film’s star, and the giddy and upbeat manner in which her compelling story is told is infectious. From being a veiled celebrity on well-known songs written and produced by Phil Spector in the 1960s to cleaning houses at the nadir of her career—only to return to the spotlight as a septuagenarian—Love and her storyline offer a profoundly satisfying trajectory.
Profiles of other important singers further strengthen the film’s narrative appeal. Clayton tried in vain to achieve fame in the early 1970s, only to find failure. Fischer was once successful as a lead vocalist, but had trouble following a 1991 Grammy-winning single and decided to step out of the spotlight. After working as a provocative backing vocalist for Ike and Tina Turner and many other white rock groups, and purportedly serving as the inspiration for the Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar,” Lennear left the music business entirely and is now a language instructor and tutor at Mt. San Antonio College. Hill was working with Michael Jackson at the time of his tragic death in 2009, and now struggles between the comfort and stability of backing gigs and striking out on her own. Short profiles of other singers, such as Vega and the Waters Family add more layers of complexity and compassion to the plight of the backing vocalist. In the end, what is perhaps most impressive about the film is the manner in which it maintains a continually positive tone. Some of the vocalists seem content with the security and anonymity of a supportive role, and others are realistic about the reasons that they failed to have careers as leading performers. Those who do attempt the transition to star status often find, ironically, that their backing work is integral to the very system that they seek to transcend.
The explicit claim that Darlene Love and Fanita James were the “first black background singers working in the studios” is overstated, as though made to support Love’s starring role in the film. Their group, the Blossoms, was certainly at the forefront of a trend toward using backgrounds that aligned sonically with stereotypical female African-American vocal types. But this style was closely linked to the rise of girl groups in the Rhythm and Blues market in the late 1950s, a connection that the film ignores altogether.
Instead, anachronistically, it portrays this vocal style emerging sharply against the backdrop of Perry Como and the Fontaine Sisters singing “Silver and Gold” from a 1952 television broadcast. The depiction of fundamental differences between these “white” singers, who needed arranged scores, and “black” singers’ ability to freely improvise is also a historical distortion that conflates racial essentialism with larger contexts of musical style. Despite opening with a striking montage supported musically by “Walk On the Wild Side,” a song in which Lou Reed famously refers to his supporting vocalists as “the colored girls,” 20 Feet From Stardom manages to avoid or simplify the most central questions surrounding the cultural role of these singers. Why did rock musicians, who were mostly white and male, start to value the “insertion” of female vocal blackness (or a “gospel vocal sound”) into their music? How did this syncretic sound represent the changing cultural identity of rock during the 1960s and 1970s? Finally, what are we to make of the issues of race, gender, and power implied by this characteristic representation?
20 Feet From Stardom is without question powerful and important. The singers profiled, the role they helped to create, are embarrassingly under-represented in discourses about popular music, and this documentary offers public remedy. If it wins the Academy Award on March 2, quibbles such as mine should not spoil the moment. As time moves on, however, and the film becomes part of a larger dialogue about the history of popular music, more detailed work will need to occur to tell a more accurate and nuanced story of the vital role played by backing musicians in popular music. Until then, we should all let these singers enjoy their moment of “stardom,” and bask in some of the most stunning and versatile vocal performances recorded during the last half-century.
Andrew Flory is assistant professor of music at Carleton College. He has written extensively about American rhythm and blues, and is an expert on the music of Motown. His book, I Hear a Symphony: Listening to the Music of Motown, is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. Working directly with Universal Records, Flory has served as consultant for several recent Motown reissues. He is also co-author, with John Covach, of the rock textbook What’s that Sound? (3rd edn., W. W. Norton, 2012).