Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Christmas Miracle - Reviews in Bad Taste: 20 Feet From Stardom

So, I turned around and made some massive life changes (no, I still drink, but thanks for your concern), and the next thing I knew it was Christmastime, and I hadn't updated this blog for several weeks. And no one complained.

I'll focus on the latter and take this as a victory.

Anyway, here it is: December. I've been mashing the iPhone with Phil Spector's "A Christmas Gift for You", because....well, it really is the only Christmas album I need. There's plenty of other great stuff out there (the final shot of that Low video does it to me every single time), but if I could only walk away with one holiday album, this is the one.

Listening to all of that phenomenal girl group pop reminded me: I saw a great music documentary earlier this year, and I never finished the blog post I started about it. Because I'm incredible that way.

Anyway, here it is. Because we need to make things right before 2014...


Among my greatest (and possibly least known) musical fascinations is my love for girl groups and female background vocals.

The Crystals, The Ronnettes, Martha and the Vandellas and most especially the Shangi-Las have all had a special place in my musical library over the years. (And don't even get me started on the Sahara Hotnights).

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why - blame it on the Stones, blame it on the Dolls, blame it on Eddie Money - but I suspect it mostly has something to do with a certain kind of power that women have always had over me: unabashed expressions of feminine emotion -- be they exuberance, sorrow, longing or, well, anger -- have always been much more compelling to me than those by males.  

(Think about it: would "Soul Finger" sound halfway as fun without the girls?)

And, so, I was excited when I learned that the SilverDocs/AFI Festival featured the film, "20 Feet from Stardom" this year.

"20 Feet From Stardom" takes a close look at some of the most prolific but unheralded heroes among the rock and roll / R&B / soul background singer communities. And while it features all of the prerequisite interviews with superstars (Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting are all interviewed prominently), the beauty of this film is that the background singers themselves are the focus.

If 20 Feet has a heroine, it is certainly Darlene Love. For folks like me, who know her primarily for her signature song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", it was a revelation to learn:

(1) just how prolific she was (Ever heard The Monster Mash? Then you've heard Darlene Love);

(2) just how badly the industry screwed her (Ever heard the Crystals' signature song? Then you've also heard Darlene Love, thanks to Phil Spector's magnificent - yet despicably unethical - legal and marketing acumen); and

(3) how she made her comeback.

This concept of getting screwed by the industry tends to be a theme throughout the film. The mighty Merry Clayton shares her experience of being told that -- despite being the voice behind Gimmie Shelter and Sweet Home Alabama, among others -- her solo career flopped because there was "only room for one Aretha".

Meanwhile, Claudia Lennear finds herself at a loss as to why her solo albums didn't get a bigger push from the record companies.

And in a heartbreaking twist, Love recalls hearing one of her songs on the radio as she was working as a house cleaner.

On the flip side, career background singers like Lisa Fischer (practically a de facto member of the Stones by this time), and the mind-bogglingly ubiquitous Waters Family (...Google them) are portrayed as far more satisfied with their place in the arts, even if that place has somehow come at the expense of both stardom and domestic stability.

As a full-fledged junkie for rock star documentaries, I have to admit that 20 Feet From Stardom was a needed reminder that it takes an awful lot of talented people to make a hit single or a great album - and that all of them (not just the stars) make sacrifices in order to be a part of it.

I really can't recommend this film highly enough. I've found that it has changed the way I listen to just about everything -- even songs I've known since I was a kid.

And I'm not sure you can ask for much more out of a music documentary.

1 comment:

Joe said...

I was just thinking how I'm going to stop collecting Christmas music, because I've got 16 hours of it and it's getting hard to identify anything that's really worth 3 more megabytes of hard drive space...

Damn your hide. That Spector album looks great.

I saw a review of "20 Feet From Stardom" which just raved about it; I'll keep an eye out for it.