Watching this year’s Oscar show (a bad habit I can’t seem to break!), I was rooting for anything other than “The Act of Killing” to win the Oscar for best documentary feature. I had seen (and been somewhat ambivalent to) two of the other nominated films, “The Square” and “Dirty War,” but had not seen “20 Feet from Stardom,” which was described as the “feelgood” alternative to the other documentaries about grim subjects including murder and beating up demonstrators.
Though I liked the music and loved some of the archival clips in “20 Feet from Stardom,” I don’t think it is a well-made movie (or the best 2013 documentary feature). I find it quite incoherent as it shifts from black female backup-singer to black female backup-singer and a confusing array of black female back-up-singer ensembles. The only male one is Luther Vandross who crossed over from being a chubby backup singer seen with David Bowie to being a lead-singer who hired some of his former coworkers. I enjoyed many of the rueful interview segments along with footage of performaces by Sting, the Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles (with Billy Preston visible on organ) and a bit from the “Concert for Bangledesh” with two long, ragged-bearded ex-Beatles (George and Ringo).
The theme song of the a movie with a very extensive soundtrack seems to me Otis Redding’s “Dreams to Remember,” though it is pretty far into the song that female backup singers can be heard. Many of the women looking back to the 1960s and 70s aspired to become soloists and are rueful about their failure to break out, to move that 20 feet indexed in the movie’s title.
Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, and Sting laud these women’s talent and say with varying degrees of explicitness that talent is not enough to ensure success (Springsteen articulates best the array of other determinants).
The rampant sexism of the rock’n’roll industry is largely not discussed, though one of the women recalls discomfort at being nearly naked onstage, and Claudia Lennear, a former Ikette recalls that Ike Turner considered himself a major pimp with female singers, not least his wife, Tina, as hoes to display and make money for him. I guess one could say that the movie shows the sexual objectification rather than telling about it, but this easily segues into participating in and perpetuating the sexual objectifications of the 1960s and 70s. (BTW, backup singing faded in the 1980s, putting these professionals out of work to a considerable extent.)
Particularly depressing is hearing about Phil (Wall of Sound) Spector recording Darlene Love and attributing her singing to others, notably the Crystals who then lip-synched her in the hit He’s a Rebel.”
“Raelette” (backup for Ray Charles) Merry Clayton failed to make it as a soloist (not for lack of trying, with at least three solo albums) but received some appreciation from Mick Jagger (hear her in the Stones’ recordings of “Brown Sugar” and “Gimme Shelter”).
Earlier documentaries on single groups of backup musicians, “Wrecking Crew” and (the Funk Brothers) “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” as well as “Searching for Sugarman” (vanished headliner Rodriguez) are more coherent and also contain lots of archival music.
(So what do I think was the best 2013 documentary feature film? Despite my also having qualms about its construction, my current answer is “Dirty War.” I have yet to see the fifth nominee, “Cutie and the Boxer” or “Drew:the Man Behind the Poster,” which has been praised by some.)