Film 4 in the UK began a week of documentary screenings, kicking off with this Oscar-winning film about some of the most revered ‘backing singers’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I enjoyed the film which features some of the faces and the lives of the great singers who are often in the background as performers. Viewed objectively, however, it seemed to me that the film’s narrative was poorly constructed and we didn’t learn as much as we might about the dilemmas facing such singers, the industry in which they worked and the technical details about their performances. Later, I also came across the claims that some of the testimonies by the singers were perhaps misleading.
The film’s director, Morgan Neville, is a very experienced director of popular music documentaries, mostly for US TV, I think. He has explored a range of popular music forms – different genres, eras, stars etc. so I was a little surprised by some of the film’s missed tricks. The film focuses on a group of mainly African-American women, many the daughters of families rooted in gospel music and the church. Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer provide the main focus but there are others as well. We find out something about the stories of each of these women and also hear the commendations of stars like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting as well as record producer Lou Adler and various other industry personnel. My suspicion is that Neville and his team got carried away with some of the great stories that these women could tell and didn’t spend long enough working out what kind of narrative they wanted to construct. The film as a whole lacks a clear focus. Darlene Love has the longest and most emotional story – and she bears the brunt of the negative comments about her time contracted to Phil Spector. I did know about her problems with Spector (shared by many others) and she may well have ’embroidered’ her account a little, but she certainly deserves to be cut some slack.
One possibility might have been to explore the questions about race and gender in the industry a little more overtly. There is plenty of material but the only reference that is underlined is when Merry Clayton describes her own reaction to being asked to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (the film shows a Skynyrd performance with a Confederate flag as a backdrop). Later Ms Clayton is shown singing her version of ‘Southern Man’, the Neil Young song that prompted the Skynyrd backlash. There are also two references to white performers seeking out black backing singers to give the music more ‘soul’. The first explains that white backing singers were known as ‘readers’ because they could perform any song – but not necessarily ‘feel’ the music. The second reference is to the British singers like Mick Jagger and Joe Cocker who might need an addition of ‘authentic’ voices as white boys singing black music songs. Both these statements needed more examination, I think. The film uses rock for many of its examples and there is a familiar suggestion that while Spector, Ray Charles and Ike Turner may have exploited attractive young black women as singers (and dancers), the British acts tended to treat them more as professional performers. This matches similar claims about Tamla and Stax performers who were more appreciated by white UK audiences than white US audiences in the early years – and the claim that bands like the Stones helped to resurrect the careers of some of the blues acts (and made sure that they earned royalties). This may be just a romantic notion promoted by British journalists, but needs investigating. More pertinent is why none of the well-known black music journalists and scholars are interviewed about the racism in the industry.
The other central issue in the film is the question about why these performers, who clearly have great voices and great musical skills, have not become stars in their own right as solo performers or leading members of vocal groups. There are suggestions and the issue is explored. The one moment when a visual image seems to comment on the argument is when some of the industry personnel and Sting (who appears in awe of Lisa Fischer’s voice) suggests that the real ‘kick’ in singing together with other people is the feeling that your voice is melding with others and the experience becomes ‘spiritual’. We then see a flock of birds (are they starlings?) swarming together in a night sky and then breaking up again, only to reform their ‘murmurations’. This seems the moment when we really might get to an understanding of why some singers emerge as stars and sustain a career. We might argue that although some of the great backing singers have got better singing skills than the stars, they perhaps haven’t got the ego or the drive to be the star out front – or they recognise what to do but don’t want to ‘play the game? Sting is a singer whose music doesn’t always work for me and he has an image that suggests pretentiousness, but in his comments in this section he makes a lot of sense and is worth listening to. He argues that success depends on more than having the talent, the voice and the performance skills. He suggests that sometimes it’s just circumstances, chance/luck – his point is that those who succeed recognise this and deal with it. But just when this kind of analysis gets interesting it stops when someone suggests that it is autotuning that has changed the industry and record producers no longer need great singers if they can digitally manipulate the voice of someone who works as a celebrity/star.
I think this film operates at the level of a standard TV music documentary, albeit with a high level of performance clips and talking head interviews. The subject could also have been explored in relation to a wider range of industry practice issues. For instance, nearly all the examples derive from either rock music or major acts of R+B/soul music. It might be interesting to compare the use of other voices in aspects of traditional country, country-folk and country rock where typically backing vocals are supplied by other singers of equal status. Why is this? I remember a BBC4 documentary on the recordings by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris as ‘Trio’. The three voices came together beautifully but the three albums of material were spread over many years because each singer was contracted to different record labels. For live performances there were not as many problems perhaps? I suppose I’m saying that the film stimulates lots of debates but doesn’t know which is the focus and can’t cover them all in a satisfying way.
20 Feet From Stardom inhabits similar territory to Standing in the Shadows of Motown (US 2002) and also Secret Voices of Hollywood (UK 2013) about the dubbing of Hollywood musicals by singers who were not credited at the time. All these films are worth watching, but for an emotional documentary narrative about a singer who struggled for years to achieve the acclaim that her performances deserved, I’d go for Miss Sharon Jones! (US 2015), the story of the late Miss Jones and the Dap Kings.