Girls on Film: 20 Feet From Stardom

20feetAt the midpoint of 20 Feet From Stardom, the new documentary film about background singers, Mick Jagger’s eyes gleam with tears. He’s listening, on camera, to Merry Clayton’s isolated vocal track from “Gimme Shelter”, recorded in 1969. As Merry’s voice reaches its breaking point, he shakes his head in admiration and disbelief. Her performance helped make the track a heart-wrenching, harrowing classic, but Mick admits to not knowing her name until well after the recording session concluded. Background singers were interchangeable to many of the musicians who employed them to sing on their tracks, in those days. In a twist, the audience learns that Merry didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were, either! She got the call to come to the studio late at night. Heavily pregnant, with curlers in her hair, Merry got out of bed and went down to the studio, where she recorded three takes. As she told NPR, “I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said ‘Ooh, that’s really nice’…It was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.” Merry suffered a miscarriage later that night. Rumor had it that the strenuous effort she put into the recording caused her to lose the baby, although doctors did not confirm it.

Merry is just one of many legendary background singers profiled in this excellent film. Viewers meet Darlene Love, leader of the Blossoms, who sang backup on countless classic songs, including those by the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. Signed to a recording deal by Phil Spector, Darlene was cheated out of stardom by Spector’s practice of releasing her songs under other groups’ names (that’s her singing the #1 hit “He’s a Rebel”, credited to the Crystals). After leaving the recording industry in frustration, Darlene found herself cleaning houses to make ends meet, until she heard one of her songs on the radio and decided to get back in the game. We also meet Claudia Lennear, a former Ikette who was the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, and the uber-talented Lisa Fischer, who has worked with everyone from Sting to Stevie Wonder. She currently tours with the Rolling Stones, singing Merry Clayton’s part on “Gimme Shelter”.

Many background singers were preacher’s daughters who grew up singing in the church choir. That gospel fire soon became a huge selling point for background singers, brought in to add soul to recordings by artists who were anything but soulful. And, as Merry Clayton points out, learning to sing with others is a skill unto itself, one she had to learn when she was singing with Ray Charles’ backup singers, the Raelettes. The film illustrates this with footage of a flock of birds flying together, taking their cues from one another.

There is a catch-22 involved in being a background singer. Nearly all background vocalists have dreams of solo stardom, and become background singers in order to get their foot in the door and pay the bills. However, too many years spent singing backup have the opposite effect, grounding the vocalist in background limbo as their dreams of stardom slide away. While this has been the case for many of the artists profiled in this film, including Tata Vega and the Waters Family, the filmmakers clearly hope that things will be different for Judith Hill.

Judith, a young vocalist who was working with Michael Jackson at the time of his death, came to national attention with her performance of “Heal the World” at his memorial service. A former contestant on The Voice, Judith performs her soulful, self-penned songs to small crowds. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a background singer, she often sings backup in disguise to pay her bills while she pursues her solo career.

20 Feet From Stardom‘s title expresses the irony of the background singer: just as talented as the performers they back up, they are literally and figuratively just outside the spotlight. For too long, their stories have gone untold and their efforts unappreciated. With this entertaining and thoughtful documentary, they can become household names at last, as they always should have been.

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Girls on Film: The Sapphires

The_Sapphires-posterIn the early to mid-1960s, a girl who loved rock music had few options for getting involved. She could date a guy in a band, thus becoming part of their entourage. She could become a music teacher, passing her love of music on to children. She could even try her hand at singing, although the solo pop stardom of the top female artists provided little of the camaraderie found in the typical rock band. No wonder, then, that so many music-loving ladies turned to girl groups. Formed on street corners, in church choir lofts, or after school in the gymnasium, these groups allowed young women to join together in song, harmonizing and sympathizing with each other over catchy pop beats. The most popular girl groups formed in the United States (the Supremes, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Shangri-Las, Martha and the Vandellas), but time has revealed that so many girls around the world had caught the music bug, too. This is where The Sapphires picks up, in the  outback of Australia.

sapphiresMaternal Gail,  amorous Cynthia, and teenaged mother Julie are sisters, living on the indigenous reservation provided by the Australian government. Having spent their childhood singing harmony with each other, the sisters have a bond that goes deeper than blood. Bored, and unable to stand the poverty of the reservation for one more day, the girls are desperate to get out. They brave racist catcalls in the town to perform in a talent contest, and there they meet Irish Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). He promises them that if they’ll stop singing country songs and start singing soul instead, he’ll help them find stardom.  When the girls show Dave an ad promising singing groups a small fortune to perform for troops in Vietnam, he manages to convince their parents to let their daughters go. Before they can audition, Dave puts them through a grueling rehearsal process, shifts lead singing duties from Gail to Julie, and adds a fourth member to the group: the girls’ cousin, Kay. A light-skinned indigenous woman, Kay was kidnapped as a child by the Australian government and raised “white” in the city (a sadly commonplace  practice that continued until the 1970s). The tension in the group mounts, but they land the gig in Vietnam. Suddenly thrust into danger, the girls find their new freedom both terrifying and exhilarating. Gail experiences mixed emotions as she feels obligated to care for her sisters, even as she is strangely drawn to Dave…who has a secret that threatens to tear the group apart.

With just the right mix of humor and pathos, The Sapphires is an engaging look at a time and place (Vietnam, 1960s) through new  (indigenous Australian girls’) eyes. Chris O’Dowd is highly entertaining as Dave, the songs are classics, and the chemistry between the female leads is authentic. It is hardly a revelation that the story is based on an actual group called The Sapphires who went to Vietnam—as history has shown us, a girl’s love of music can take her anywhere. Above all else, The Sapphires stands as a paean to the sisterhood of harmony that reaches around the globe.

Girls on Film: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

stainsBored with her working-class Pennsylvania town, 17 year old Corinne Burns teams up with her younger sister and cousin to form a band. Before they can even learn how to play their instruments, they are hired to be the opening act for an up-and-coming punk band called The Looters. Corinne’s unusual style and charisma quickly propel The Stains into superstardom—until their new fans turn on the band. Their swift rise and unceremonious fall form the plot of the 1981 cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.

Starring a very young Diane Lane as Corinne, with members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols in minor roles, the film is a fascinating look at the music business in the early 1980s. There are the usual tropes about greedy, unfeeling managers, and the disposability of pop stars, but there are some unique angles explored here as well:

1. Although the world of male rock stars had been explored many times on film (going all the way back to 1957’s Jailhouse Rock), the female side had yet to be investigated. An all-girl band was still an anomaly in the early 80s, and therefore was the perfect movie subject. This film, seen on late-night television in the late 80s and early 90s, inspired many of the women who started the Riot Grrl movement.

stains22. There are some puzzling gender stereotypes at play in the film. The Stains’ rabid (all female) fan base loves Corinne one moment and hates her the next, supposedly illustrating the vapid interests of the typical music fan—or perhaps, we are led to believe, the typical FEMALE music fan. The girls latch on to the Stains because, in seeing Corinne on television, they identify with her anger and feel empowered by her boldness. Why, then, are they depicted as mere copycats of her look and attitude? Why must they be shown trying to duplicate every aspect of her look exactly, right down to the color of her blouse? Contrast this with fans of The Looters (largely male), who are depicted as individuals instead of a mob of copycats.

3. The character of Corinne is both the film’s biggest draw and its biggest disappointment. While the viewer learns at the beginning of the film that Corinne’s mother has recently passed away, thus explaining her anger and feelings of alienation, she remains an enigma throughout the film. Why does she want to be the leader of the Stains’ “movement”? Why does she relentlessly pursue stardom in the beginning, then reject it, then embrace it again in the end? The character is brash, larger-than-life, and completely different from any other female character seen in mainstream movies of the era, and it’s easy to see why she was so inspiring to members of Bikini Kill, Hole, etc., but the viewer never quite gets to know her.

stains34. The end of the film, in which The Stains have a hit record and get their music video on a channel that looks suspiciously like MTV, seemingly predicts the look and success of The Go-Go’s and The Bangles, still a year away when the film was completed. These bands, unlike the bands of the Riot Grrl movement, didn’t have a chance to be inspired by The Stains as they had already formed by the time of the film’s release.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a flawed but very entertaining film, and a real milestone in the depiction of women musicians on celluloid. The bands that it wrought would one day take its message of empowerment further, but in 1981 it was clearly in a class by itself.