Aug 13

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Who wants to see a documentary about back-up singers? You do. If you enjoy music, especially singing, 20 Feet from Stardom is a must-see. You’ll hear amazingly beautiful voices. You’ve probably heard the singers many times, but have never known who they were.

Morgan Neville’s film focuses on five talented singers: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Judith Hill. Beginning in the Sixties, they have sung on many well-known R & B, rock and pop songs behind singers from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger. Clayton, who sang on The Rolling Stone’s 1969 hit “Gimme Shelter,” was the only one of these I recognized.

Lisa Fischer

Lisa Fischer

Among the star performers who are interviewed are Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Nia Peeples, and Sheryl Crow (a former back-up singer). Interviews with producers and others in the music industry give a behind-the-scenes view of how the music we hear gets made (it’s not always a pretty picture).

Springsteen talks about the challenges in moving from back-up to lead singer. Clayton, Lennear and Vega tried to make it as solo singers, but had limited success. Lennear has been teaching Spanish. Darlene Love spent a period cleaning houses, before a song on the radio called her back to music. At 29, Judith Hill is the youngest of the featured singers and is working toward a solo career.

Regardless of these singers’ struggles and setbacks, the music is thrilling and awe-inspiring. You can’t help but come out of the theatre with your spirits lifted–and wanting to hear more of this music.


Jan 10

The Howlin’ Wolf Story (2003) [DVD]

I really enjoyed Don McGlynn’s The Howlin’ Wolf Story (2003), which I saw on DVD. I think it’s one of the best blues documentaries I’ve seen. It’s a typical mix of archival footage and photos with contemporary talking heads interviews. It gives an overview of Wolf’s life and music. One of its strengths is that several songs are heard in entirety. Some are recordings behind a montage of images. The best segments are from a 1966 performance of Wolf with Hubert Sumlin, his lead guitarist, and others. There are also some clips of drummer Sam Lay’s home movies of Wolf and the band at Silvio’s Lounge in Chicago (now a vacant lot). One really gets a sense of what he might have been like as a performer. I would give almost anything to have seen him perform before his death in 1976.

Howlin’ Wolf is one of my blues heroes and mentors. While he’s not as well known, perhaps, as Muddy Waters, he’s of equal stature in his importance to the blues and his influence on later music, including rock ‘n’ roll.