Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Sometimes–yes, sometimes–the accolades heaped upon a film are deserved. This is certainly one such case.
20 Feet from Stardom won the Oscar for best documentary in 2014, and it’s easy to see why. The subject matter–the evolution of the role of “backup singers” in the music industry over the last 60 years–has natural potential; but the execution of telling that story is decidedly masterful. The film is almost ingenious in the way that it manages to make “lead performers” out of certain of its subjects while relegating others to “backups,” at the same time making the very convincing case that there are really no second-stringers. There are only A-listers waiting to either be discovered, or decide that the marquee is simply not for them.
While the primary story is the music industry’s affair with uncredited (or under-credited) performers, at the center of the narrative are two longtime divas still playing the game, Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. As the film progresses, you will be astounded how well you know their trademark vocals without ever having learned their names. Their stories are cautionary tales of sorts, provided as they are with both personal demons–ambition, naivete, blind trust, and pride–as well as legitimate villains in the form of unscrupulous (if insanely talented) producers and moguls such as Phil Spector.
The film also features the stories of second-generation talents such as Lisa Fischer, a legend in her own right, who have benefited from the experience and model of cautionary trailblazers like Love and Clayton. In many ways, the story of this generation of singers is more tempered; rather than being about a single-minded drive to the top, it’s about sticking a toe in the water before making the leap. Yes, the temperature seems fine; but we’ve heard that there be dragons, too. Are these waters in which we really want to swim? Some, like Sheryl Crow, say “Yes!” and jump in with both fully-educated feet. Others, like Fischer, get in up to the chin before deciding, “No, I think this is gonna kill me.”
By the time we get to the latest generation, exemplified by Judith Hill, we see both sides of the equation fully in play: an unquestionable lust for stardom, tempered by the educated reality that swimming with sharks is not always the best decision for one’s health. Still, having a good shark cage along for the journey is not only wise, but makes it survivable.
Loads of commentary from music industry luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Luther Vandross, and Mick Jagger puts a lot of the material in useful perspective. But for my money, the film would also have benefited from interviews with its villains, such as Spector or Ike Turner (though of course that’s not possible). These were decidedly manipulative men who directly prefigure or even typify Harvey Weinstein or R. Kelly; but in this #METOO era, it’s well to ask: When you want to attach yourself to truly innovative and powerful talent, how do you protect yourself from the often-attendant excesses of such personalities? And how do your own talents, drives, and excesses enable or exacerbate abuse?
There’s no doubt, as 20 Feet makes the solid case, that virtuoso artistic synergy produces pretty delirious magic. And I buy into that pretty readily, with this film being a perfect example.
But still, the film is extremely thought-provoking and the question of complicity is begged. The bigger and more lucrative the industry gets, the more is at stake. If there are tragedies involved here, if there are stars to be made and people to be broken, what role do we as consumers play in that? How much culpability do we bear? Do we incite the abuses of manipulators like Ike Turner and R. Kelly? Do we care?
In many ways, the safest place to be is at least 20 feet from stardom… and star worship. Maybe we should all just stay in church and hang out with the choir, and avoid spotlights altogether.