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Popcorn Preview: 20 Feet from Stardom

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Film: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Cast includes: Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Táta Vega, Mabel John, Gloria Jones, Claudia Lennear, Lynn Mabry, Janice Pendavis, Lou Adler, Chris Botti, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Sheryl Crow, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Phil Spector, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder
Director: Morgan Neville (Jonny Cash's America)
Genre: Documentary | Music

It's not that far, but "The walk to the front is complicated," says Bruce Springsteen. "Sometimes it's more of a mental leap. It requires a level of ego and narcissism that many are not comfortable with." "Hey Babe, take a walk on the wild side... and the colored girls go doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do doo..." The "C" word makes some uncomfortable, but it wasn't until "colored girls" began singing backup that rock and roll became truly mainstream. The white backup singers... "readers" ...always sang from sheet music. Darlene Love and The Blossoms were the first of the "colored girl" backup singers. They changed the music industry forever. Many were pastor's daughters, having honed their musical talents in church. They didn't need sheet music. Their sound was raw, real and powerful. It was second nature, blending their voices. Phil Spector found them indispensible for his signature "wall of sound."

But when some of them wanted a solo career, they encountered a whole range of issues... such as losing ownership of their work. After recording "He's A Rebel," Darlene Love had her name removed from the label by Spector. Grammy Award-winner, Lisa Fischer actually made 3 albums, but they never took off, and she was soon cut loose... only to return to singing backup. She's probably best known for her work with Mick Jagger... the backup singer on every tour since 1989. It's not just about the drive to be a lead singer. There are many factors, including politics. It's not enough to make a record; the record company needs to put promotional muscle behind a performer's careers. "There's only one Aretha," says Darlene Love. Aretha Franklin is a large woman with a large, powerful voice, so the industry figures that slot is filled. They're not interested in building the careers of Darlene Love or Lisa Fischer because they don't need another Aretha. (How many male singers would have survived if the industry didn't want overlap?)

20 Feet from Stardom features many hugely talented black female backup singers that you've possibly never heard of, but you know their work... from Motown to 29-year-old Judith Hill. Judith Hill is at the same point in her career that Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer came to, when they had to decide whether to struggle against the odds for a solo career or keep taking backup gigs... "Quicksand if that's not what you want." At one point Darlene Love's career was so low, she left the industry and started cleaning houses. But she did make a comeback and was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. These days, the industry is tougher than ever for a sustained career. If a singer is lucky, she/he can become an overnight star, thanks to American Idol. But without putting in the time, working your way up, some have a thin background and little staying power. The film might have had a better narrative had it focused on fewer singers. On the other hand, they clearly wanted to include as many as possible. It's a wonderful tribute. Let's hope some careers get restarted.

3 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
There are many reasons why female backup singers don't make it, as a solo artists... lack of talent isn't one of them

Popcorn Profile
Rated: PG-13
Audience: Grown-ups
Distribution: Art house
Mood: Neutral
Tempo: Cruises comfortably
Visual Style: Unvarnished realism
Primary Driver: Information
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Informative & Thought provoking

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