20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s documentary about backup singers, deserves an objective review because without any qualifications it is the finest film of 2013 thus far. It channels its subjects’ greatest strengths—big wind, an uncanny ear, a fastidious work ethic, a knack for knowing when to sing and when to stop, and an indomitable spirit—and in doing so pulls back the curtain on a rarely considered world, which is the very best function a documentary can fulfill. What’s more, by suggesting with an infectious, clear-eyed joy how this world connects to everything else, it fulfills one of the very best functions of any movie.
But part of what makes this film so extraordinary is that it summons really personal responses. I’ve seen it twice so far and during both screenings the audiences—full of professional critics!—spontaneously burst into applause and tears more than once. God knows I cried through both showings.
At this point I’ll come clean with my own association with the material. My father, an atheist-Jewish computer science professor hailing from lily-white Massachusetts, has had a lifelong romance with R&B, soul, doo-wop, gospel, blues. Certainly he’s not the only Jewish man in his generation to evince a passion for what’s still sometimes known as black music (I won’t even get into how complicated that is) but his commitment has proven steadfast and often endearing. In our family a Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin album was always spinning on the turntable or pouring out of the car speakers. And at every opportunity he sang those songs himself, warbling in his cracked, earnest falsetto while I did backup.
He taught me young. Starting around 5 or 6, I learned to listen closely so that whenever he’d break into a lead I could chime in with the right oohs, ahhs, babies. I’d croon “No, no, no” while he’d howl Frankie Lymon’s “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.” He’d sing “Respect” and I’d add, “Just a little bit,” just like Aretha’s sisters did. Did I want to sing lead? Not really. I was a daddy’s girl who was fiercely proud to support him as he sang his heart out. But as I began to come into a limelight of my own—around age 11 I started doing some TV spots—my father and I began to part ways. I couldn’t help but observe he preferred to sing lead in his own house, and from this I learned the classic lessons of the backup singer: that sometimes it was better to blend than to shine, that adaptation was necessary for survival, that you had to know when to cut your losses, and that I loved the music for its own sake, regardless of whether I could gain any rewards by doing so.
So I get backup singers. And the dynamite news is that Morgan Neville does, too. He doesn’t trip over himself as he carefully builds the arcs of these individual women’s lives into something that is, fittingly, bigger than the sum of its parts. Starting with a credit sequence in which he slyly reappropriates artist John Baldessari’s work by applying dots to the lead singers in vintage R&B images, Neville draws upon whatever works best to tell this ultimate underdog story. He enlists some of the biggest names in the music business—Sting (poncey as ever), Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Freaking Jagger—to lay out the enormity of these women’s contributions to the twin canons of rock and roll and R&B. Wisely, though, he mostly lets the women speak for themselves. Continue Reading →
Fetching your coffee in Williamsburg at 7am on a Sunday morning means you witness a lot of walks of shame. This morning I got caught behind a couple blocking the sidewalk as they ambled to the subway. He was trying, subtly subtly, to hurry them along but she was so lit up in a reverie of Sunday-morning-new-love-this-is-how-it’s-supposed-to-be that she didn’t pick up his cues. When they got to the stop she reached up expectantly, head tilted back and lips slightly parted for a big Hollywood goodbye kiss, but he merely pecked her cheek and patted her back while conspicuously removing his pelvis from the picture. Just like that her face fell, shoulders crumpling as she descended the stairs to the subway, and I shuddered, thinking of the awful self-loathing to which she was also about to descend. I could see the whole thing just from that moment: They’d met online, gone on two dates he’d considered more mediocre than she had, and they’d slept together the night before because of his idle desire to get laid and her powerful need for connection. The guy and I stood together at the corner, waiting for the traffic light to change, and I could feel the relief radiating from him like UV rays. Involuntarily I snorted. It was more of an audible exhale, really, but I confess I’d forgotten anyone could hear or see me since I consider myself invisible when I’m in Harriet the Spy mode. (It’s amazing how often I meet people who’ve never noticed me though I’ve watched them many times.) Suddenly he looked straight at me with the most searing mix of defensiveness and fury, and I–overcompensator that I sometimes can be–smiled evilly right back. The light changed, he rushed away, and I apologetically sent them both a silent burst of peony compassion. O, Sunday morning. Jesus, indeed.