Thursday, June 27, 2013

Back-ups: Do they get enough credit?

I've always thought that being a back-up singer would be a rewarding experience, a life full of harmonic satisfactions and impressive dance moves. Although the entertaining new documentary 20 Feet From Stardom didn't exactly change my mind, it opened by eyes to some of the frustrations inherent in singing back-up. Director Morgan Neville uses some major front-line talent to talk about the role, talent and status of back-ups, namely Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger. Of course, we hear from lots of back-up singers, as well. Darlene Love, who worked with producer Phil Spector and often received no credit for her labors, is one of the few back-up singers who eventually broke into lead-singer ranks. The movie also demonstrates that the line between the collaborative melting pot and cultural appropriation can get blurry. I got the impression that some white performers know that they can deepen their sound and connect it to R&B history by letting back-up singers do some heavy lifting for them. Merry Clayton, for example, sang back-up on the Stones' Gimme Shelter. That's not to say that name artists aren't appeciative of the work of the talented singers who back them up. They are. You'll also meet Lisa Fischer, who has worked with others, but who has amazing chops of her own. Fischer -- at least in this film -- earns a place in the spotlight and helps add to the fun of an informative and very lively work. Any frustrations aside, 20 Feet From Stardom is far from a collection of seething (if justified) resentments. Sure, stories about music-industry injustices can be found, but there's also an obvious love of music-making and some very fond recollecting. And no matter what you think about any issues raised by 20 Feet From Stardom, you'll be buoyed by a movie that never forgets to entertain -- while throwing in a bit of inspiration for good measure.

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