Twenty Feet From Stardom–Six Films About Wanting to Make it Big in Music

Have you ever wanted to be a star?  Have you ever wanted to be on stage in front of thousands of admiring people?  That fantasy is a nightmare for me because I’m so shy, but some people crave the limelight.  Recently I’ve watched five films and read one book with a related film about people getting very close to music stardom but not being famous names to us all.  For these people, this can be crushing, especially the ones who get inches away from achieving their dreams.  Some of these people chronicled in these films actually liked being twenty feet back.  Not every studio musician or backup singer wanted to be front and center on the big stage, but many did.  These films are:

Twenty Feet From Stardom is about backup singers, Standing in the Shadows of Motown and The Wrecking Crew are about the musicians that played on most of the hits of the 1960s.  Searching for Sugar Man and Big Star are about three artists that made artistically great albums in the early 1970s but were completely ignored by record buyers.  And finally, Inside Llewyn Davis is a fictional account of a folk music singer during the heyday of the folk revival who painfully could not grab the brass ring no matter how hard he tried, or how many people he used or hurt.

The gist of these films are about people climbing Mt. Fame, and even having the talent to get within sight of the summit.  Failing to achieve stardom after getting so close creates a psychological crisis that all of these people dealt with in different ways.  To me, the most tragic was Chris Bell of Big Star.  Sixto Rodriguez’s story in Searching for Sugar Man is so unbelievable that its stunning, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s the reincarnation of the Buddha. 

After seeing Darlene Love, Marry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Patti Austin, Judith Hill and many others in Twenty Feet From Stardom I went to Rdio and played their records that I could find, and surprisingly, there were many.  There are so many records out there that never make it to the top of the charts that are still worthy of your ears.  This is the true value of Rdio.  But this also teaches us something.  Evidently there are more great singers than there are hit songs.

Watching Standing in the Shadows of Motown and reading The Wrecking Crew, both about studio musicians who played on the defining songs of my teen years back in the 1960s, just crushed me emotionally.  These guys never even got liner credits for the most part, yet all the wonderful riffs and melodies that are burned deep in my soul were created by them.

All of these people deserve more fame, and luckily we have film makers that are helping them to finally get the spotlight.  And like I said before, there are more great singers and musicians than there are hit songs.  A hit song, the kind that tens of millions will notice, are a combination of songwriters, singers and musicians.  But what makes a star?  Time and again in these films they talk about the drive and ego it takes to become a star.  These films are about many people who had talent, but the lacked something to go the last twenty feet.  What separates Bruce Springsteen from Chris Bell and Sixto Rodriguez?  What separates Aretha Franklin from Darlene Love?

Standing in the Shadows of Motown was illustrative.  It had the original musicians playing the original songs, but got other singers to sing them.  This showed both the importance of the musicians and the singers.  If you’ve ever listened to recreations of original sixties hits it’s so apparent that something is off.  Hit songs are extremely hard to make, and most often it’s accidental I think more than intentional.

Thanks to YouTube, I can give you a taste of each of these films.

 

 

 

My favorite song from Standing in the Shadow of Motown

 

 

 

My favorite Chris Bell song.

 

 

I hope The Wrecking Crew comes out soon because I’m very anxious to see it.  I’m curious if younger people will like these movies, because essentially all of them are about people from the baby boomer generation.  I’m sure one day there will be films about Katy Perry’s musicians and backup singers, but for now, these are the stories we have.  And I’m grateful to Netflix, because documentaries are not widely distributed.

JWH – 3/28/14

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