seen @ Herbert von King Park, Brooklyn NY
20 Feet From Stardom was one of those movies that got away from me at first. I remember when it came out; I told myself I would see it for sure, but I never did. Either I was short of cash or it came and went in a hurry; I don't recall. I was pleased to get a second chance at it last weekend as a free outdoor movie.
Stardom is the Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers throughout rock history. They sing the parts of songs that are always fun and easy to sing along with: the shoo-bee-doo-bee-doos, the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dongs. We may not be able to sing like Aretha Franklin, for example, but we can always do the "re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-spect JUST A LITTLE BIT!" part, whether we're in the shower or the car or in Aisle 6 reaching for the can of corn.
Among the many singers interviewed, including superstars like Jagger and Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, the best-known of the backup singers is probably Darlene Love, who sang with many of the big names of the 50s and 60s. The songs on which she sang lead were not credited as such for a long time. She talks about her struggles with uber-producer Phil Spector, as well as the events that led to her solo career and greater recognition, in and out of music (she was Danny Glover's wife in the Lethal Weapon movies).
We get to meet other singers, mostly black, mostly female. Things changed for them when they were encouraged, and more to the point, allowed to sing the way they knew how, the way they were used to singing all their lives as opposed to simply filling in the spaces between the lyrics. Rock stars like the Stones, Bowie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, put them on their records, brought them on tour, made them more in-demand. Why didn't these singers become stars in their own right? The movie suggests there's no one answer - but they have no regrets. (Seeing this made me wish, not for the first time, that more black people made rock music today - and that radio would play them - but that's another post.)
Naturally, I thought of my sister Lynne as I watched this, though in her case, it's different. She's the lead singer of a band, one that has been her support structure for years as they play around New York. Her husband is part of that band. As far as I know, she hasn't tried being a backup singer for anybody. Still, the theme of pursuing a career in the field, gaining recognition, resonates.
I think Lynne is a great singer, but she kinda got a late start in going for a career, and in a field that values youth so highly, I think it's fair to say the odds of ever hearing her on the radio one day are long. I think if she did nothing but play bars and clubs with her band for the rest of her life, though, she'd be okay with that. She enjoys the music so much; always has. I think that's what matters most - and Stardom suggests that's the best way to be.
This was the first outdoor movie of the season for me. Von King Park is deep within a part of Brooklyn with which I was unfamiliar. It was a warm summer night, with lots of people having cookouts and playing music and kids roaming freely - but with few people actually watching the movie.
The inflatable screen was set up on a largish lawn area. I came without a blanket to lie on (I forgot) and I was concerned my spot would get eaten up by the encroaching audience, like it would if I were at, say, Brooklyn Bridge Park. In fact, the crowd was so sparse, there was room for kids to play catch with a small dog and to kick a soccer ball around. This went on behind me for the most part, though the dog trampled my leg once while running.
If the surrounding park-goers had any interest in the movie, they didn't show it. Far behind me, music (modern hip-hop, of course) continued to play, though the movie was loud and clear enough that it wasn't a problem. With the Fourth of July just around the corner, at one point fireworks went off behind the screen. You'd think a free movie prominently featuring black people would attract more interest in what looked like a mostly-black neighborhood. I dunno. I'm just glad it didn't rain.