Movies: Twenty Feet from Stardom

I used to want to be a backup singer. Is that silly? I didn't dream of the spotlight, only of harmonizing. I'm sure there are psychological reasons for that; my independent streak is one thing, but I also have that deep-seated desire to belong, to meld with others . . . In particular, I wanted to sing backup for Jimmy Buffett. But whatever.

Meanwhile, in college I had a roommate who was getting an Advertising degree, but her passion was always music. So I wasn't entirely surprised to learn some years later that she had moved to L.A. and was writing her own music as well as booking studio sessions as a backup singer. (Here's her site; she's been doing work with Keb' Mo'.)

This is all just meant to illustrate that I came into Twenty Feet from Stardom with a certain amount of personal interest. And I enjoyed the film, though . . . I think I was expecting something different. I guess a documentary can't cover a subject too broadly; they had to pick some very definite people to talk to and follow, backup singers whose careers they charted from then to now. But as things went on, I asked myself, What's the point they're trying to make? And I couldn't quite get an answer.

That's probably more on me than on the film. I'll admit my attention began to wander. There's a chance the film made many points.

One thing I liked was when Sting mentioned how winning something like American Idol might rocket you to stardom, but it means you haven't worked as hard, haven't mined the depths of yourself, and so whatever you produce is less likely to last. I think he's really right in that. We've seen stars rise and fall in ever more rapid cycles, and it's because they have nothing to make them stick. They are all gloss, so they slide right by.

The film also touched on how trying to be a superstar is very different from having a real love of your art. People who love what they do and put themselves into it . . . They may or may not get famous for it, but one can detect the difference between someone like that and someone who is just in it for money or attention. (I, of course, must always go back and relate these things to writing, which is my chosen art. People who labor over a book because they can't not write are very different from those who churn out whatever the lowest common denominator of pop culture is. Those LCD people will sell, but . . . Same for screenplays/movies. We're a culture of mental candy. And so the people who deserve to do well—those who go the extra mile, those literary spinaches and broccolis—often don't.)

Sting also pointed out that talent alone won't get you there. Luck is involved. Serendipity. Destiny.

These are the things I took away from Twenty Feet from Stardom. Well, and that Merry Clayton (and she was such a hoot; I loved her) recorded her part of "Gimme Shelter" while in pajamas and curlers.

Really, the film was in part a historical look at the role of backup singers, and at how that has changed. What these singers bring to a song or a show. Why their names deserve to be known.

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