Monday 4 December 2017

From the archive: "20 Feet From Stardom"

The title of Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom adds a poetic dimension to that tricky distance that separates stagefront from stageback, and thus the music business’s journeywomen – its jobbing back-up singers – from its multi-platinum divas. The Beyoncés of this world may get their names elevated to marquees, but Neville grasps it’s their harmonists who often have the most illuminating stories to tell. His film nudges several prominent examples forward, shines a spotlight on their lives and work, and says: OK girls, take it away. Most don’t require a second invitation to let rip.

2002’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown and last year’s Muscle Shoals set the trend for poking around the backdrop of pop, but Neville’s film distinguishes itself in defining a particular personality type. Its subjects are mostly women of colour, and often gospel-trained, which perhaps accounts for their relative humility. While many display the self-confidence common among those regularly performing to screaming thousands, that ego has clearly never grown large enough to prevent them from deferring to the top-billed artiste, even – in certain sorry cases – from allowing said artiste to claim credit for their own recordings.

As the film sets out its potted pop history – shuttling from the Fifties’ very light entertainment through the Spector years and the British invasion to arrive at Bowie, Talking Heads and Michael Jackson – its subjects’ anecdotes mesh into an underlying counternarrative, one that reclaims decades of underacknowledged labour by women from ethnic minorities pursuing careers within an industry still controlled by white men. (It’s entirely apt the film should have picked up the Oscar at the same ceremony as 12 Years a Slave took the top prize.)

Neville is savvy about isolating his subjects’ contributions to pop lore: he pushes up the colour of their dresses in the archive footage or the levels on their vocals in the mix, the better to appreciate, say, Lisa Fischer’s genuinely eerie, siren-like wails on “Gimme Shelter”, or how even a throwaway non-classic like Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” would be a far lesser record without all the “toot toot”s and “beep beep”s Ms. Summer delegated to the collective known as The Waters Family.

Without the Raelettes, Ray Charles’s vocal on “What’d I Say” might merely sound that of an abject letch groping for respectability. With them, however, the track becomes something else: a playful back-and-forth or flirtation, one more gleaming polish of everything that remains seductive about pop music. To hijack that old axiom about Rogers and Astaire, he gives them the gig, but they give him class and allure, and each track they produced together was warmer and more human for them occupying the same space. (Could the same be said about’s digitised hook-ups with Miley Cyrus, or Pitbull’s with Ke$ha?)

Some have sniped that Morgan’s film was the safe, Academy-friendly option in the year of The Act of Killing, a triumph for slick showbiz glitz over heavyweight yet contentious history. All of which is to massively undervalue the importance of pop’s own history to anybody with ears and a heart, and to overlook how the films achieve a comparable force of impact. Each film is, in its own way, performance-driven; though 20 Feet aims for harmony and uplift, where Killing finds jawdropping discord, both sets of stories ring through loud and clear.

It would take a particularly hardy breed of cynic not to shed a tear here: upon hearing of a career that didn’t quite turn out the way it might have, at the sight of a newcomer tentatively shuffling out into the light, or simply upon re-encountering one of the soundtrack’s roster of great, great tunes. In bringing the camera and viewer closer to his subjects, Neville succeeds in rendering the distance inscribed in the film’s title entirely moot: whether or not these names, faces and voices were on your pop-cultural radar beforehand, the whole movie just sings.

(MovieMail, March 2014)

20 Feet from Stardom screens on Film4 tonight at 11.15pm.

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