‘20 Feet From Stardom’ chronicles the path to the limelight

“20 Feet From Stardom” (2013). Cast: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, Lou Adler, Dr. Mabel John, Claudia Lennear, Táta Vega, Lynn Mabry, Jo Lowry, Stevvi Alexander, Patti Austin, Janice Pendarvis, Chris Botti, Bill Maxwell. Archive Footage: David Bowie, Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Ike and Tina Turner Review, Talking Heads, George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Phil Spector. Director: Morgan Neville. Web site. Trailer.

Stepping to the front of the line in any field of endeavor is often a challenging task for anyone seeking to get ahead. The path is riddled with obstacles and calls for hard work, and success is far from guaranteed. Such is the lot of those who ardently seek to rise to the top in the engaging new documentary, “20 Feet From Stardom.”

Backup singers occupy a unique position in the music world. They’re easily overlooked, but they’d definitely be missed if they were absent. In musical arrangements, they provide “completion” to the pieces in which their voices appear. In concert appearances, they’re an integral part in the performance landscape, contributing both visually and harmonically. And, in studio recordings, their input often helps make songs memorable. Indeed, where would we be without them? “20 Feet From Stardom” spotlights the role they play, making their significance apparent for all to see.

The film chronicles the history of backup singers from their gospel music roots to their early studio performance days to their rich and diverse present. It then goes on to focus on the lives and careers of a number of supporting performers, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. In doing so, the documentary examines the trials and tribulations of performing in the background and of attempting to make that physically short but metaphorically long walk to the front of the stage. It’s a journey that results in success for some and disappointment for others, and the outcomes are often based on factors other than talent, as noted in interviews with the would-be stars and with such recording industry luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow and legendary producer Lou Adler.

So why does success come to some and not to others? As in anything we undertake as conscious creators, the results depend on the beliefs – all of the beliefs – we hold going into the process. Becoming successful in any of the arts, for instance, requires the implementation of a combination of beliefs to make the viability of such a pursuit possible. For a backup singer seeking to step out of the shadows and become a lead artist, for example, it takes more than beliefs that support one’s talent; it also calls for beliefs associated with such other elements as successful self-promotion, ambition, charisma, stage presence, effective collaboration with fellow professionals and creating the right opportunities, to name a few. If any of those belief components is missing, the results one attains will surely reflect their noticeable absence.

For instance, for backup singer Claudia Lennear, who successfully managed to move up through the ranks and earn a solo recording contract, fame proved elusive, even though she was recognized throughout the industry as an outstanding talent; despite having seemingly “made it,” she inexplicably never realized the success she so earnestly sought. Likewise, for Judith Hill, success appeared to be right around the corner when she landed a gig as a backup singer with Michael Jackson, who was a major backer of her emerging career; unfortunately, that opportunity evaporated with the King of Pop’s unexpected and untimely death.

It’s hard to say exactly why these singers’ careers didn’t pan out as hoped for, but, from a metaphysical standpoint, it likely has something to do with elements missing from their belief mix, frustrating though that may be. Indeed, as Pastor Dr. Mabel John, a former backup singer for Ray Charles, observes in the film, becoming a success requires more than just having the gift of a great voice; it depends on what one does with that gift in bringing it forth to the attention of the world, and that’s where the promulgation of those essential associated beliefs comes in.

But is seeking success as a lead artist the only option to which a backup singer should aspire? Not necessarily, and some of the alternative probabilities to that goal are examined in the film. Lisa Fischer, for example, had a long and illustrious career as a backup singer for artists like the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner and Luther Vandross. Her mesmerizing vocals even earned her a solo artist contract and a coveted Grammy Award with the release of her first album. After that, however, her solo career mysteriously fizzled. One might wonder, as she did, why. But, as Fischer herself notes in the film, she came to discover over the years that she’s happiest when she’s just singing for its own sake; the art itself is its own reward, and that’s enough for her. Continuing to perform in the background may not produce the same notoriety as being out front, but, then, sometimes playing a valued supporting role – and forming the beliefs that make that aspiration possible – may be enough, especially if it’s just what one wants to begin with.

Backup singers who truly enjoy the role they play are obviously well acquainted with the concept of successful co-creation, the realization of magical manifestations that arise from the process of collective materialization. Such collaborations are a beauty to behold and a joy to participate in. Many backups are genuinely content to contribute in this way, and they have built successful careers doing just that. They provide a great example to show us what’s creatively possible when we embrace the qualities of – and beliefs associated with – cooperation and connection.

Still, there are those for whom being out front is the ultimate goal, and they’re determined to get there one way or another. Just ask Darlene Love. As someone who began singing backup in her teens, she finally managed to attain success as a lead artist at age 40. Her 30-year solo career since then has brought her widespread acclaim, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In getting there, however, she had to overcome many challenges, such as having her work relabeled as the recordings of other artists and wrestling with capricious producers who held her back. Her beliefs related to persistence and determination got her through those tough times and allowed her to eventually shine. And her experience serves as an inspiration for anyone seeking to become a genuine success at what they truly love.

“20 Feet From Stardom” is a real gem of a film, one that’s sure to receive serious consideration as the year’s best feature documentary. Its on-camera interviews are sharply insightful and to the point, successfully avoiding the pitfalls of padding or irrelevancy that often hamper many documentary efforts. It successfully draws attention to its metaphysical aspects without hammering home its points in the process, not an easy feat but one that’s handled here with tremendous skill, especially in the film’s editing. And the wealth of performance and archival footage makes for great viewing. Seeing the history of pop music play out from this truly unique perspective is something really worth watching.

Finding our place in the world is an odyssey of discovery for all of us. What we find we want may not always be what we thought we wanted, too. But, as in any undertaking, it’s the journey and not the destination that makes the trip worthwhile. As long as we create with sincerity, the outcome we realize should prove eminently fulfilling, no matter what role we end up playing.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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