Berkshire International Film Festival 2013: Twenty Feet From Stardom (2013)
There is a moment in Twenty Feet From Stardom when backup singer Merry Clayton enters an empty recording studio and blissfully reminisces recording her legendary vocals on The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter” with Mick Jagger during the early hours of the morning. She closes her eyes and smiles in satisfaction as the song roars in the background just before the instrumental drops out to reveal Clayton’s powerhouse a capella vocal. The scene then cuts to a stunned looking Jagger, still in awe of her talent years later, listening and recalling the magic of recording that evening in 1969. The scene sends chills up the viewer’s spine and garnered an enthusiastic applause from the crowd at the Mahaiwe Theater during the opening night of the Berkshire International Film Festival.
Directed by the award-winning music doc veteran Morgan Neville, Twenty Feet From Stardom dissects the lives and career pitfalls of black female backup singers from the early 1960s, 70s, and today. The film aspires to introduce the audience to the women not recognized in the mainstream media that are behind many of the soulful hooks and hit singles of popular artists like The Crystals, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles, among others. These humble artists have recorded, toured, and performed in the shadow of many famous icons, while possessing talents and voices that are often far superior. Splitting its focus between 60s upstarts Darlene Love and Merry Clayton and contemporary R&B singers Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, the film succeeds in illustrating the similarities between these women’s narratives, from being uniformly raised on choir and gospel music to struggling with solo careers.
However, by featuring the insight of famous musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Sheryl Crow, the film seems to lose some of the independence that it tries so hard to fight for, especially when paired with its glossy, polished look and high-production value. But maybe Neville was trying to bring these ladies the full attention and grandeur they deserve after spending years competing for the spotlight. Darlene Love, whose tribulations with producer Phil Spector are explored in the film, fell victim to her vocal recordings being sold and lip-synched by more popular starlets in the 60s. The film attempts to connect Love’s tragedy with the talentless auto-tuned stardom of today, while gifted vocalists like Judith Hill are left to question their career choice. But Twenty Feet From Stardom excels at providing hope and exposure for these timeless talents, and those fortunate enough to hear Love’s rendition of “Lean On Me,” during her BIFF Q&A after the screening, would more than likely be willing to attest to that.
Twenty Feet From Stardom arrives in theaters June 14th.