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How ’20 Feet from Stardom’ backup singers define success

From left, singers Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Tata Vega and Lisa Fischer (Victoria Will/Invision/AP )

I walked out of Morgan Neville’s documentary 20 Feet From Stardom on air, wanting to tell everyone I knew that they had to see that movie.

Which I did.

I was hardly alone. Facebook posts and entertainment Web sites have been erupting with that heard-too-little-these-days sound of the real thing: Self-surprised, word-of-mouth acclaim for this story of a half-dozen backup singers, most of them African American women, whose subtle, masterful, flexible and (this is important) utterly professional artistry “made” the songs and the concerts we’ve loved for decades, from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound gems (that would be Darlene Love) to The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

(Merry Clayton was the first singer called in to sing with Mick Jagger one middle-of-the-night, when her hair was in curlers, and the instantly likeable Lisa Fischer, whose day-to-day life we saw in more casual intimacy than the others’, became Mick’s stage partner through all the Stones tours from 1989 on. And to say that she carried that song is no  exaggeration. Watch her singing it with him here, and see if you can refrain yourself from replaying this clip all day long.)

In a season when so many big, male action movies have been industry-worrying box office disappointments, and where the new books many of us are raving about (for me, that’s Joan Silber’s Fools and Emily Brady’s Humboldt)  are not on the bestseller list, and where new (Ray Donovan ) or returning (Magic City) sexy-slick, macho-hero TV dramas are trying way too hard and falling half-flat, there’s an all’s-right-with-the-world-ness about a humble documentary that’s bumped along the festival circuit becoming the one thing people are grabbing each other by the lapels about.

Granted, great popular music is my biggest addiction — in front of spicy tuna handrolls and Elliot Stabler in reruns of Law & Order SVU, even — as it is so for so many of us. So a music documentary might seem a no-brainer. But I think the appeal of the film goes farther than that. Some have said that 20 Feet, while wonderful, is also “heartbreaking.” These women didn’t achieve solo-artist success (though some of them did have debut solo albums, Clayton’s with the sponsorship of elite hitmaker Lou Adler); they worked in the service of famous singers, mostly mega-successful white males, who, like any white male singer on the planet with the possible exception of Michael Buble, were dying to sound black. And the revelation that Darlene Love was reduced, for a while, to cleaning people’s houses lifted the whole audience’s shoulders in a collective “poignant! unfair!” sigh. As the film happily showed, however, she triumphantly made a comeback from house cleaning. (As, sadly — as many of us know — Florence Ballard of the original Supremes did not.)

But I’ll venture to say, perhaps unpopularly, that the “heartbreaking” part misses the point. Stratospheric pop music fame is elusive, rare, often cruel, and (see under: Beyonce, Rihanna, Alicia) not reserved for white males. Besides, as even the Stones (now sometimes called The Strolling Bones) are learning, every performer looked prettier when they were young.

No, I think what was so satisfying about the movie is: These women are us. We see ourselves in them, and they affirm our choices, our own niche professionalism. Filmmaker Morgan Neville recalls a man standing up at one of the festival screenings and saying:  ‘I’m a middle manager at a company, and I’m O.K. with that. We make a good product, and I’m proud of what I do. I just realized that I’m a backup singer.” Most of us work collaboratively, for bosses, in positions we’re proud of and which are key to the successful running of an operation, creative or otherwise. The praise that Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, and Sheryl Crow showered on these women — and it was thoughtful, specific, and sincere praise; these stars wanted to do that touting — is the praise we’ve heard, and the praise we’ve given ourselves. The reflectiveness, classiness, and self-esteem of the backup singers profiled reflects all of us who have felt: So? I didn’t reach for the Number One spot. I’ve done good work. I feel good.

Lisa Fischer makes this explicitly clear. As she recently told The New York Times:  “I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more. I love supporting other artists…. Everyone’s needs are unique. My happy is different from your happy.”

The Times suggests that Lisa’s attitude, which suffuses the movie, is why she became its hidden star. I think this is  true. Some of the shrewdest people who are great at what they do knew that — as we say now — “leaning in” to a Number One for which they were qualified had more negatives than positives. Says a staff lawyer at a major movie studio:  “I’ve had opportunities to transfer over to the Business Affairs side (the sexier, high-profile, work-with-agents-and-studio-execs work — making big money/high stakes deals and then turning over to the drone lawyers to handle the paperwork), but you’re more exposed.  If you don’t play poker well and you lose a key deal, or you can’t close fast enough, you’re discounted.  It’s competitive and aggressive, and if there’s a change in regime, they might bring in “their guys” and you can be out shopping your resume.  But the lawyers, no one really cares as long as there’s no major f***-up.  Regimes come/regimes go, and no one fires the lawyers.”

Says a top “second editor” on major, award winning movies who elected not to try to advance from that niche: “What I love about my position (usually first assistant editor, sometimes assistant editor, now assistant VFX editor) is balancing a distance and a close proximity to everyone. I hear and see virtually everything but my opinion rarely is asked; when it is, I have learned the politics from the best. I make sure that everyone’s work is as perfect and as exact as they create it and if it isn’t (not because anyone’s sloppy, mind you) we fix it. My work isn’t often creative but I keep the integrity of everyone else’s work. That’s the huge freedom, and the satisfaction, for me.” These two are women. But a male TV correspondent who’s familiar to many who watch network news has said he’s glad he opted off the — cut-throat — star-anchor track; it’s been better for his peace of mind and his family.

It’s ever so American — and ever so feminist — to say, “Reach for the skies! If you don’t, you’re underestimating yourself!” But that thinking may also be boilerplate, simplistic — and tin-eared. Some of the most savvy, nuanced — and humane — people know themselves well enough to take that well-meant advice with a grain of salt.

Humane: that’s what the women in 20 Feet From Stardom were. Gimlet eyed, accepting, forgiving. I’d rather be any of them than, say, Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg, who, after she possibly saved her life from switching from the doomed Asiana flight to another flight (to utilize her frequent flyer miles), tweeted that she and her family were OK, but didn’t think to offer any sympathy, concern, or prayers for the victims of that severely ill-fated flight.

That was tacky, Sheryl, although you probably didn’t do it on purpose.

Maybe, by sometimes leaning sideways, 20 feet from the red hot center, a person gets a wiser, more soulful view.

Sheila Weller

Sheila Weller is an award-winning magazine journalist and the author of six books, including 2008′s New York Times bestseller “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — And the Journey of a Generation.” She is currently working on “The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour — and the Triumph of Women in TV News.”


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