Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we've had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.
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A documentary that celebrates Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the signature sound he developed in songs such as "I'll Take You There", "Brown Sugar", and "When a Man Loves a Woman".
A celebration of the musical work of a group of session musicians known as "The Wrecking Crew", a band that provided back-up instrumentals to such legendary recording artists as Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys and Bing Crosby.
The backup singer exists in a strange place in the pop music world; they are always in the shadow of the feature artists even when they are in front of them in concert while they provide a vital foundation for the music. Through interviews with veterans and concert footage, the history of these predominately African-American singers is explored through the rock era. Furthermore, special focus is given to special stand outs who endeavored to make a living in the art burdened with a low profile and more personal career frustrations, especially those who faced the very different challenge of singing in the spotlight themselves. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I watched this movie last night and enjoyed it. This morning I came to write a glowing review, but I decided to read a few other reviews first. Imagine my shock when I saw several informed reviews criticizing the film for its blatant fabrication of facts. So I paused to do some research on my own.
The worst fudging seems to be regarding the career of Darlene Love which, to me was the most interesting part of the documentary. It's interesting because Darlene makes the claim, backed by documentarian Morgan Neville, that Darlene was the real lead singer on several songs which ended up being credited to other artists. It blames Phil Spector (you know, the guy who is currently serving 19 years for 2nd degree murder of actress Lana Clarkson) for maliciously manipulating Darlene Love and tricking her with promises of a solo career but instead crediting other singers for Darlene's work. Journalists were unable or unwilling to reach Phil Spector in prison to check facts; the world would much sooner believe a poor victimized singer who is forced to clean houses for a living than a rich & powerful murderer.
The truth is convoluted (if you're curious, there's a pretty credible analysis on songfacts.com, search for the song "Da Doo Ron Ron"). The official record stands that Darlene Love has since retracted her claim that she sang lead. Last year the NY Times issued a correction to its article which had praised this film, stating that Darlene Love did NOT sing "Da Doo Ron Ron", but maintained that Darlene sang backup on it. But the real truth is that Darlene's voice wasn't on that song at all. The backup singers were Fanita James, Gracia Nitzsche & Cher.
There's more, but you probably get the point. Not only is this documentary inaccurate, it may be deliberately fraudulent for the sake of weaving an underdog story that never was. It's really sad that the film screwed up on that account, because there's plenty of other things it could have focused on instead of claiming that these singers were cruelly manipulated.
Like the far superior documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown", this film could have focused on the inspirational story of musicians who are simply proud that they helped make musical history--regardless of if they became superstars. In "Shadows" we don't get a weepy pity party for anyone; instead we get a triumphant revelation that the greatest session musicians were just ordinary Joes & Janes who never craved the spotlight. In "20 Feet From Stardom" we get conflicting messages: on one hand that the backup singers are content to remain in the background, on the other hand we get the picture that these backup singers were cheated out of stardom by sleazy producers. And lo & behold, those claims aren't even true.
So, like my title says, I feel horribly cheated and manipulated myself. I had come here ready to write a rave review of what I thought was a polished & informative documentary deserving of its Academy Award (make no mistake, the cinematography and intimate studio footage are excellent), but 10 minutes researching the truth showed me that this documentary can't be trusted.
Check out "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" instead. If you like other styles of music (like metal, for example) check out a wonderfully heartwarming & unintentionally hilarious documentary called "Anvil! The Story of Anvil". The music world is full of interesting stories without documentarians needing to manufacture them.
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