“Remember when we tried to sound white?”
Darlene Love, Fanita James and Gloria Jones laugh.
They were known as The Blossoms, one of the first groups of black background singers in the music industry. Now, even as 70-year-old women, they harmonize again.
“20 Feet From Stardom” is not a depressing movie. The documentary about background singers focuses less on the fact that most of their solo careers did not take off, and more on the importance of background singers and the pride they put into their work.
Lisa Fischer won a Grammy for her song “How Can I Ease the Pain,” as Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and in her speech thanked Luther Vandross for pushing her forward.
The film also shows Fischer working with other famous musicians such as Sting and The Rolling Stones.
Despite the downfall of her solo career, the documentary films her continuously smiling and singing with the same amount of passion.
There’s a scene where Fischer begins to riff by herself, the camera closed in on the pure, emotional expressions on her face as she continues to create her own melody. Her face scrunched up, her hands motioning along with the highs, the lows and the fades. It’s easy to tell that for Fischer and for the other singers singing is an enlightening experience.
Another of the interviewed singers says what the entire movie is trying to evoke: the voice is the purest form of expression and these background singers are experts.
But what the movie also does is provide a history lesson on the evolution of background singers from the first group of black women, The Blossoms, to the Ike and Tina Turner singer and women’s liberation era Claudia Lennear, to more recent stars, such as Judith Hill.
One of the sadder stories is that of Lennear who was first praised as part of Ike and Tina Turner’s eye-candy group, and then as part of Leon Russell’s Shelter People, and also as a friend of Mick Jagger. Later, she would pose for Playboy before her career slowed to a stop. She was on the shelf, her solo records never took off.
Now, she’s a Spanish teacher.
Earlier in the film, Love explains that at 18 years old, around the time she recorded “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” she was taken advantage of by the music industry and more specifically Phil Spector, who recorded her voice for other bands without giving her credit, eventually leading to her quitting music for a while.
What the movie does well is it gives the audience an emotional high very early on, letting the audience relive the memories of these singers, before breaking down to the unfairness that often comes with the reality of working for other people in the music industry.
But there is a constant uplifting feeling during the movie that these background singers can go through disappointment and still remain completely in love with music.
For Fischer, marriage was never an option because, other than the fact that she confesses she has never had a serious relationship, it just isn’t for her. She is more in love with what she does.
This movie is hopeful in that a passion for music will continue to push people, and more specifically background singers, toward their own happiness.
This isn’t the type of documentary that reveals a long hidden secret. It honors the work and impact that these singers have put into the music industry.