Saturday, July 27, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom

The best thing about the film is hearing all those glorious voices singing all those glorious songs on big glorious theater speakers.  See it in a theater.  For that, if nothing else, it's time and money well spent.  You may well come out of it saying, as the friend we saw it with did, "Gawd, music today sucks."  But hey - she's not wrong.

As a documentary exploring the art of the background singer, it has some haziness, some fuzziness, some ambiguity, about some of the points it's making.  In some cases this unfineness of point is probably to the film's intellectual detriment (although no doubt to its commercial benefit):  it skirts issues of race and gender that could have been fruitfully explored.

But one point of ambiguity is to the film's intellectual and artistic credit.  It's never quite sure how it feels about backup singing as a calling.  It wants to celebrate it:  it wants to make us appreciate how integral the backup singers are to so many classic records and performances, and to make us feel that the calling of the backup singer is a noble one.  It advances Lisa Fischer as the marquee example of a singer who has chosen, with seemingly a minimum of wistfulness, to remain in the background, and be stellar at what she does there.  But then the film spends a whole lot of time exploring the attempts and failures of other backup singers to move to the center of the stage and establish successful solo careers:  Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, even Darlene Love (although her story has a happy ending).  Which constitutes at least a half-hearted argument that lead singing is better, more fulfilling, more rewarding, and ultimately more worthy of celebration than backup singing.  At first I thought this indecisiveness was a problem with the film, but now I think it's an honest reflection of what these singers have felt.  There's no contradiction between saying, "I want to be appreciated for doing this well" and also saying "I want to do that."

What touched me deepest about the film, though, was something almost beside the point.  Bruce Springsteen gets a lot of screen time to talk about the art of the backup singer (and his own special relationship to that position was wisely left an unspoken but delicious bit of subtext).  And at one point he was talking about how Darlene Love started to gain fans on the strength of her expert and distinctive backing vocals.  But it's how he put it that struck me.  He said something like, "you begin to feel an allegiance to that voice."  That's the word he used:  "allegiance."

And it hit me:  that's a perfect word, and a quite unexpected one, to describe one kind of relationship we feel to singers.  I'm used to describing it as "like" or "love," an emotional quality, and if I was to explore the singing itself more I'd use a whole lot of other adjectives;  and if I was to explore the listener's relationship to the singing I'd probably reach for things like "identify with" or the like.  All of which are compatible with "allegiance," but think about what "allegiance" implies beyond that emotional response.  It implies loyalty, a choice based as much on a perception of qualities that one shares or (more likely) admires - it's an ethical response as much as an emotional one, a choice as much as a reaction, a pledge of fealty owed more than a confession of pleasure received.  It's a true description, at least of some singer-listener relationships, and it's one I never would have thought of.

This Bruce Springsteen:  he might be a really smart guy.

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