You know that really loud and powerful female voice heard in The Rolling Stones’ classic song “Gimme Shelter?” Repeatedly singing those haunting lyrics: “Rape, murder; It's just a shot away, It's just a shot away.”
Of course you do, everyone remembers and loves that part – such a prevailing component of a true rock-n-roll classic. But do you know who belts out that most famous chorus?
No, not Mick Jagger, of course, but Merry Clayton, a New Orleans native and highly revered vocalist in the music industry. Yet most people, including me before this film, have never heard of her . . . Such is the life of “backup singer.”
“Singing background remains, I suppose, somewhat of an unheralded position,” laughs Bruce Springsteen. “It’s a bit of walk. The walk to the front is complicated.” With the new documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, through the highs and lows, background singers like Merry Clayton and others finally get their moment in the spotlight.
Through archival footage and wonderful musical interludes, the film shows the evolution of the music industry through the eyes and voices of background singers. Most begin singing in churches with hymnals, choirs, and call-and-response training them. Soon, R&B singers, Motown, Phil Spector’s “wall of sound,” and rock-n-roll groups came knocking.
But things were not always as great as you would imagine in the music business. These women constantly had deal with issues of sexism, low pay and restrictive contracts, not receiving the credit they deserve, and being seen merely as “eye candy.” One singer, Judith Hill, says “Background singing is a springboard, but it can easily become quicksand if that’s not all you want to do.” It is where these women persevere through this and obtain some form of success that really is the heart of the film.
Over the course of the film, several riveting stories are told about some of the famous songs they sing on and the artists they performed with. Some highlights include: Merry Clayton’s accounts of recording both “Gimme Shelter” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” are fascinating, as well as Darlene Love’s frustrating experiences with super-producer Phil Spector, and singer-turned-Playboy-model-turned-teacher Claudia Lennear, who is said to be the inspirations for The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and David Bowie’s "Lady Grinning Soul.”
The film does not just recount the past. The film shifts into the modern day to not only see what the older ladies are up to now musically, but also to see how the industry treats today’s younger generation of background singers and the profession's apparent gradual disappearance from the industry.
20 Feet from Stardom is a highly entertaining and heart-warming film, and of course, filled with the best music from the past several decades. You walk away from the film feeling like you not only know these people, but may have learned something significant about the music industry as well. Well-made, the film is tightly edited and never wanders away from the point, despite encompassing so many different characters and fascinating stories.
20 Feet from Stardom is directed by Morgan Neville, a filmmaker more than familiar with the music industry having made films on a variety of singers and bands, including The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Iggy Pop, Muddy Waters, and many others.
* * * * out of 5 stars
Earlier this year in April, 20 Feet from Stardom opened the inaugural Louisiana International Film Festival, which took place in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
This week, the finally gets a true theatrical release here in New Orleans, opening Friday, August 30 at Chalmette Movies with screenings at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. daily.
So come out and support Chalmette Movies (8700 W. Judge Perez Dr.) by catching this new film, so that the theater can continue bringing interesting films like these to the New Orleans-area. Also, visit the theater’s website for more information, directions, showtimes, and ticket prices.
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