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20 feet from stardom

Valerie Lannon

June 21, 2014

How can a song be familiar and not familiar at the same time? It’s when you know the words and tune, but not who is singing. 
Such is the fate of background singers, and the 2013 documentary by Morgan Neville sets out to tell the story of several of these incredibly talented women. The documentary is introduced by Bruce Springsteen and ends with shots from one of his recent concerts where he showcased these singers.
All African-American, these performers invariably learned to sing gospel at a young age. They took pleasure in creating music in an ensemble and, initially at least, had no desire to have centre stage. Aside from the name of Darlene Love, you may not know the women who catapulted Phil Spector’s productions to fame: Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and Claudia Lennear.
Initially other “girl groups” were allowed to take credit for their voices; however by the early 1970s, they came into their own as they were sought out by the likes of Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Sting. But when a few decided to try and launch solo careers, they met many obstacles. As one noted, “It was like the industry was saying there could only be one Aretha.” The singer Judith Hill, whom Michael Jackson chose as his lead back-up and who figures prominently in the documentary This is It, is currently trying to make it on her own as a solo artist.
The documentary is very moving and, of course, chock full of fabulous and familiar music. 
In many ways this documentary is reminiscent of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, another spectacular movie, which, in that case, focused on the background musicians for Motown hits, and how the musicians’ careers virtually ended with the rise of disco.
For summer fun, great music, and a critical look at the music industry, you can’t go wrong viewing either of these movies.

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