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

Professions and Fame

Our society loves the famous, and the glamour of being famous, yet I think we have a rather narrow range of professions in which people become famous.  Quite naturally, the most famous in our society are the people who work in front of cameras:  movie stars, television stars, sports stars.  Musicians are less famous because they aren’t on television as much, and the more famous of rock stars seem to be due to media exposure rather than just musical ability.  If you want your song to become a hit, you have to make yourself famous. 

With the Internet, people are gaining fame through online exposure, but more often than not, it’s because of video hijinks.  YouTube now allows anyone to produce themselves as their own star.  See “The Impact of the Like Button.”

Fame drives ambition, so kids want to grow up and become the kind of people we see on screens – television screens, movie theater screens, computer screens, tablet screens and smart phone screens.  This limits what professions kids will think about when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

I’m thinking we need to make more types of professionals famous.

Take for instance architects.  PBS has a new series Super Skyscrapers that is about building monstrous structures that would make the Tower of Babel dinky.   Their episode on the Shanghai Tower, about a 121 floor “vertical city” was mind boggling.  The feat of designing such a building is so tremendous that I have to wonder why such a person isn’t more famous than any movie or pop star on the planet.  Of course, Shanghai Tower wasn’t designed by one man, but a firm, Gensler, but even still, they should be as famous as any rock band.  But I can’t name them.

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How many professions out there are so cool, so important, so dazzling, that their best practitioners should be famous?  Shouldn’t doctors who develop new techniques to cure cancer be more famous Justin Bieber?  Shouldn’t the creators of the Mars rovers or space telescopes be more famous than Miley Cyrus?  Shouldn’t the top philanthropists get as much attention as Olympic athletes?   Would two weeks of fame every four years inspire more people to change the world for the better?  Hell, I think there should be a weekly show devoted to such people.

Since people love CSI shows so much, why don’t we have weekly shows about real criminal investigators?  Our cities are plagued by crime, so why not focus on real crimes being solve by real people?

Why do we need so many reality shows about faked reality when we have so much far out real reality to film?

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became famous, but why aren’t the programmers of all the apps and games we use today not famous?  Things do change, because chefs have gotten famous lately.  And I assume because of that, more kids want to take up the culinary profession.

I love The Big Bang Theory, but why not have a weekly show about real scientists and engineers and what they really do?  Would a weekly show about particle physicists around the world encourage more kids to study math and science harder in school?

I can’t help but believe if we made more smart people famous then kids might choose to become smarter.

JWH – 2/21/14

A Study in Fame–Bob Dylan

Our world is awash with famous people but how many are really worth the notice?  If you live long enough you’ll watch the famous coming and going, maybe not as fast as every fifteen minutes, but its amazing how many once famous faces I can no longer match a name in memory, or tell you if they are dead or alive. Think about it, how many people can you name that have stayed famous your whole lifetime?  One of the strangest of the famous that’s haunted me my whole life is Bob Dylan.

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Dylan was born in 1941, and I was born in 1951, and he started recording in 1961, so he was in the generation just ahead of mine, who made an impression us boomers as we became aware of the world around us as teens.  Fifty years on, my demographic cohorts are in their sixties, and the generation that influenced us are in their seventies.  Many of the famous people that inspired my generation are forgotten or dead – or both.

Most folks are famous for a Warhol unit of time because they create only one noteworthy event on the world’s stage.  Bob Dylan has written hundreds of songs, an astounding output of artwork, but what makes many of them memorable is how they fit into history at large.  And if you didn’t like his singing, there have been hundreds of performers covering his tunes.  At one time I had a playlist on Rhapsody with over 100 cover versions of “All Along the Watchtower.”  Part of Dylan’s fame is due to influencing so many other people.

Not only is Dylan famous, but he’s legendary, infamous, and mythic.  Although most people won’t think of Bob Dylan when they think of the concept of fame, but if you read his biographies, and there are countless bios to read, you’ll see he’s a perfect example of someone suffering the fates of fame.

Plus Bob Dylan has toured the Earth like no other person in history.  Dylan played 2,000 concerts between 1988 and 2007, and he continues to tour at the rate of about 100 concerts a year.  His constant touring, which has gotten named the Never Ending Tour, will probably end when he dies.  Just look at his tour dates and locations.  Fans now follow Dylan from city to city like hippies used to follow The Grateful Dead.  Dylan tours like Sisyphus rolls rocks.

Has there been anyone in the history of the world that has traveled to more places than Bob Dylan?  Dylan has his own artistic empire of fame.

Yet, to the average person, how many people can name a Bob Dylan song?  He’s not that famous, not enough that all 7 billion people on Earth know of him.  Currently Dylan is only #65 on one of The Most Famous People of All Time lists.  But such lists are bogus, because there’s no real way to measure fame, other than maybe counting daily Google searches.

Of people who listen to rock and roll, Dylan is famous, to people that don’t, I can’t imagine his name coming up very often.

Fame is an odd concept.  Fame is both ephemeral and lasting.  If you look at the 2013 Time 100 list of most influential people of the moment, you won’t see Dylan, and you will see many names you’ve probably haven’t heard of before either.  How many people know of Elon Musk?  You’re famous if the media takes notice of you, whether its because you’re heroic, criminal, mad, inventive, creative, stupid, or whatever catches the public’s fancy at the moment.

Some people consider Bob Dylan a rock star, others a songwriter, and others a poet.  Fame for a poet really means how often are any of your carefully crafted lines quoted or memorized?  Fame for a songwriter is measured by how often do people sing and record your songs.  Fame for a rock star is measured by how many people swoon at your image holding an electric guitar.  Poetry is a dying art form, but poetry was never popularly consumed to begin with, but some poems have lasted a very long time.  A century from now, how many rock stars will actually be remembered?  How many figures from popular culture can you remember from 1913?  That’s after Mark Twain and before Charlie Chaplin.

The Independent gave “70 reasons why Bob Dylan is the most important figure in pop-culture history” on his 70th birthday.  Will any of those reasons be valid in 2113?

Go to this list of Dylan songs at his website, and see how many titles you know.  Then click on the song name and read the lyrics.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if the words will survive like the words of the great poets of the past.  Dylan has lead a legendary life.  I’m sure there will be novels and movies based on his adventures in the future.  Some have already come out.  But his real fame will come from his songs, and the seeds they plant in minds yet born.  Byron and Keats never imagined all the thoughts thought about their lines of poetry, and we can’t imagine what will happen to Dylan’s words in the future.  But my guess is they will be put to uses in ways we could never fathom even if time travelers came back and told us.

The-Ballad-of-Bob-Dylan

I just finished reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein.  It was a compelling read that kept me constantly wanting to find more time to read.  Among the many biographies of Dylan I’ve read, it’s among the best, although my favorites are still Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu and No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, now in a new edition.  Reading about Bob Dylan is like trying to study cosmology, it’s a subject of endless depth.

JWH – 7/14/13

I’ve Been Living Under a Rock–So Who are the Kardashians?

I’ve been living under a rock, or so it would seem, because until today when I looked up Kardashians on Wikipedia I really didn’t know who they were.  For weeks I’ve been hearing the word Kardashians and wondered if they were a band. 

Friday at work, I overheard three students arguing about the K named people.   When two left, I asked the remaining young woman, and she smiled and kindly explained they were people who were paid to be famous.  “Umm…  They do that now?” I wasn’t so clueless that I hadn’t notice tabloids exclaiming gossipy stories about K named women at the checkout.  Something about an expensive wedding and a marriage gone bad in 72 days.

Today I looked up the name Kardashian on Wikipedia and found out about their television show.  Even when I had cable I never watched E!.  I really don’t need to know any more about the Kardashians than I do now, and would not recognize one if I saw one.

This amuses me and I chuckle at my own cluelessness.  To the young, knowledge of the famous is a sanity check.  Not knowing the glitterati often gets me a sneer or sarcasm, that tells me I’m out of touch with reality and implying I’m over that famous hill.  I turned 60 last year, and I can’t name the young people who are currently famous as movie stars, TV stars, sport stars, and I would stay rock stars, but is rock is even famous anymore?  I’m just now memorizing Kate Winslet’s name and I saw Titanic twice at the theaters – for the shipwreck.

My pop culture education grades took a nose dive when I gave up cable TV and quit reading TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly.  I do read The Rolling Stone on my iPad, so I know a few new groups, but I had to buy two Arcade Fire albums before I could remember their damn name, and I still can’t remember any of their dang song titles.  Starting in my late 40s, and all through my 50s, I’ve been losing the ability to remember nouns – so maybe that’s why I lost interest in pop culture.  Following the famous requires noun memorization.

I know who Kay Francis and Robert Montgomery were, and I doubt millions of young people do – so there!  Who is clueless now?

Luckily, forgetting doesn’t hurt.  Oh, it’s annoying when I struggle to recall a name I used to know, but it doesn’t hurt.  And it’s not even embarrassing at work when young people make fun of me for not knowing the people they worship.  I remember being 13 and baffled by parents, aunts, uncles and teachers that reveal their low IQ by not knowing The Byrds and Robert Heinlein.

The 21st century is so passé, the 19th century is where it’s at.  My new idols are Anthony Trollope, Louise May Alcott, John Singer Sargent, Edith Wharton, Charles Darwin, … so back under my rock.

JWH – 1/16/12