Thursday, June 13, 2013

Twenty Feet From Stardom

The story flows. It’s not sappy or self-pitying.  It’s a story of very strong, talented women.  Twenty Feet From Stardom is a powerful documentary. Kudos to the director and editors. 

I saw it as part of the NY Times Films Club series.  Following the movie was a Q and A with director Morgan Neville and three of the movie subjects:  Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and LisaFischer. 

Darlene is better known as the voice of the Crystals among other bands.  Remember He’s Sure The Boy I Love, He’s A Rebel and Christmas Baby Please Come Home (she is actually credited on the track)? In the 1960’s her group The Blossoms were the hottest session singers in the country.  Gimme Shelter probably wouldn’t be a classic without the voice of Merry Clayton.  It’s worth seeing the movie just to hear her tell the story of the recording of the song.  If you saw the Rolling Stones perform that song live in the past 25 years, you heard Lisa Fischer bringing down the house with Mick Jagger. 

In Fischer’s humility she said there is no way she would come close to the truth that Merry delivers on that record, so she could only be inspired by her performance. That is the beauty of these women, they all truly like, respect and believe in one another.  There doesn’t seem to be a cutthroat rivalry among them either then or now.  Merry thanked Darlene for her tutoring early on in her career. Darlene said The Blossoms, were in such demand that she would refer producers to Merry.  She also said that Merry was the best or she wouldn’t have recommended her for the job.  This of course didn’t exclude playful digs between Merry and Darlene.  Darlene was ready to pass the plate after Merry’s heartfelt preacher-like tale of growing up in the church. 

Darlene and Merry both had fathers who were Pastors.  Singing in a church choir gave them the tools to be the best session singers. They knew when to sing and how to delivery it.  At the time Darlene was breaking into the business, session singers were white and rather restrained.  As Bette Midler says in the film, they knew when to put their hands up and when to lean into the mic and that was about it.  Darlene and the Blossoms couldn’t read music but they could feel it and could run with it.  They made the producers’ job easy.  They upped the ante for any singer. 

You will be blown away by this impressive and diverse contribution of The Blossoms:

That’s Life -Frank Sinatra
Johnny Angel -Shelley Fabares
Monster Mash –Bobby Pickett
Rockin’ Robin –Bobby Day
The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss) -Betty Everett
Chain Gang –Sam Cooke
You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling
Unchained Melody
(You’re My) Soul and My Inspiration –Righteous Brothers
River Deep Mountain High –Ike and Tina Turner

It wasn’t always easy. There were failed solo careers.  Darlene Love was contracted to Phil Spector.  She finally got out of her deal, signs with Gamble and Huff and then they sell her contract back to Phil Spector.  Could it be more devastating?  She decided to clean houses.  As she pointed out Tuesday night when referring to Phil Spector, what goes around, comes around.

The film also highlights Judith Hill who was set to backup Michael Jackson on his last unfulfilled tour.  She is the youngest of those profiled.  I had no idea she was a contestant on the Voice this season.  She is pursuing a career as a solo artist and unlike the other women profiled, she writes her own music, which gives her an advantage.  It’s probably what moved Sheryl Crow from the background to the forefront.  Sheryl appears briefly in the movie.  Also appearing are Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting.

There has to be a lot of valuable footage left on the cutting room floor. The interviews are engaging and entertaining, which I think is a testament to the performers as well as the filmmakers.  I would love to see the “rejects” from Morgan Neville.  I’d pay to view on the web.  It’s a no-brainer.

Twenty Feet From Stardom is a joy.  It will have people talking.  The archival footage is riveting.  Don’t be surprised if this movie revitalizes the careers of these highly talented musicians. 

Of note:  I focused on the women, but The Waters should be mentioned.  They are featured on Michael Jackson’s Thriller: Julia, Maxine and of course, Oren.

Of second note:  The movie was produced by Gil Friesen.  He was chairman of A&M records and I had the pleasure of working with him.  He's one of my favorite record company people.  Sadly he passed away last year, but not before hearing his film was accepted to the Sundance Film Festival.  

1 comment:

  1. Hopefully this movie will build momentum so audiences accross America and around the world will have access this entertaining and very important chapter in music history. These pioneering women were the "It Girls". They had it all. The greatest voices, bodies, hairstyles, wardrobe and attitude. We all wanted to be them and even embarrased ourselves trying to sing along with them. We would expolre the liner notes to find our Ambassadors of the Airwaves. They may had stood Twenty Feet From Stardom, but we wanted them closer. Finally and thankfully Morgan Neville has brought them to the forefront.
    And it is where they sould always be...Front and Center.