celluloid oxygen

film reviews and essays by Tess Connellan

Twenty Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013)


They’re just a shot away.

Did you ever go to a concert and see the singer do that thing of introducing all the band members? Or pointing them out when they did something particularly cool? And when one of the backup singers belted it like that you have a moment of “why aren’t they the leader?” Morgan Neville must have that feeling constantly, and he’s turned it into this swing-bang-humdinger music documentary about the women who will make you say that over and over. And yes, they’re all women. All women of colour. And tell you what? We’re all going to shut up and bow down.

Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love and Claudia Lennear, among others, are the women who will show you that standing back takes more heart than charging forward. Among them, they’ve done backup work for Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Tina Turner and many others whose names escape me. Or, as you will think of it, those artists have done work for them. From Bowie to Jagger to Sting to Springsteen, we have a clutch of white boys realising that the black women who sing behind them more than match their talent. It’s about time. When Merry Clayton’s voice cracks as she roars about rape and murder, a legend was born. In layman’s terms, she blew the shit out of that song. I saw this on the closing night of the (wicked) Sydney Film Festival 2013; and you know a performance is incredible when a cinema audience – ie. one who is not in the same room as the live performer – applauds crazily anyway because what they just heard was so amazing. Hardly anything can match that joy.

Quite aside from the flawless archiving work of the pure music, Neville and his stars refuse to ignore the glaring issue of both gender and race in all their lives. Everyone wanted girls because they sounded pretty and looked pretty. After a while everyone wanted black girls because they sounded even prettier. No, not prettier. Stronger. Sexier. More soaring. More soul. More emotion. When you were a black woman in the sixties (and after), rape and murder was just a shot away, no wonder they could sing about it so well. So would you if society treated you like a can to kick around; and you still had the spirit to flip them off by putting on your sparkly dress to waltz onto the stage and sing. Loudly. And well. To rapturous applause. Just by singing the songs and doing their thing, these women were one giant, beautiful middle finger in the face of the racism and sexism they had to deal with every day. They fought that fight alongside others. They are a collective Luther King, heroes with beehive hair, and no one seems to know it.

I’m nothing but a self-taught no-count skin-thumper, and this film still filled me with the kind of admiration and spirit I believe people have long associated with the possibly fictitious figures gracing cathedral stained glass windows. Whether you’re a homeless person who still finds the heart to hum on a street corner, a girl with cracking drumsticks making a messy rock racket, or a maestro who composes and plays a world of instruments as easily as breathing: music is a universal language. Twenty Feet from Stardom is the Bible of it, written by the people who helped form the miracles.