Twenty Feet From Stardom

This movie is going to make Lisa Fischer a star. Just like Ry Cooder went to Cuba and brought the Buena Vista Social Club to prominence, the unheralded Fischer will get a victory lap she didn’t anticipate, and she deserves it, because she’s just that damn good.

I love going to the movies during the day. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, that I was put on this planet to resonate with art. Yes, in a life that moves so fast, it’s fun to slow down and play hooky in the middle of the day.

And I know this film was the last production of the late Gil Friesen.

And I know who most of the singers are.

But I wasn’t prepared for their stories. How despite being so talented, they hit a glass ceiling they could never break through.

Claudia Lennear? Who toured with the Stones and posed in “Playboy”?

She’s been teaching Spanish for over a decade. She just couldn’t handle the struggle, despite a deal with Warner Brothers, despite me and you and everybody who ever read the credits on a vinyl album knowing who she is.

Darlene Love?

She sang uncredited on so many Phil Spector hits. The lead! The Crystals were on the road when “her” record shot up the chart, but they got the credit. She finally escaped from Phil and signed with Gamble & Huff, who promptly sold her contract back to Phil and Darlene…gave up and cleaned houses.

That’s what they don’t tell you, the downside. You see someone on TV, hear them on the radio, and you think they’re rich and famous, leading a much better life than you. But frequently that’s not true.

And you’ve got to see Ike & Tina Turner, with the Ikettes. Unfortunately, they were before their time. Today, Ike & Tina Turner would be the biggest act in the world. Because of their live show. It used to be about the recordings, now it’s about the show. And you think you’re giving the audience what it expects by singing to tape, but that’s not what people want. They want humanity, they want to be touched, they don’t want to be entertained, they want to have their minds BLOWN!

Kind of like Merry Clayton…

RAPE! MURDER! IT’S JUST A SHOT AWAY!

If you’ve ever heard “Gimmie Shelter,” you know Merry Clayton’s part.

The Stones called her at 2 A.M. She was pregnant, she was in curlers, she was in bed. But she ambled on down to the studio and sang. And Mick asked her if she wanted to do one more.

And she said to herself…I’M GONNA BLOW THEM AWAY!

That’s the mark of a pro, that’s the mark of a star, someone so confident that all they need is a window to demonstrate their wares, they’ll deliver, just give them a chance.

Kind of like Tata Vega, who was passed by by Stevie Wonder, and then sat down at the piano and sang, to get noticed, to make him come back, and he did.

And yes, so many of these vocalists did not become stars.

But they had a hell of a good time.

The blacks took over from the whites. The English rock stars liberated them. Told them not to sing the charts, not to get it right, but to demonstrate how they FEEL!

Let loose, they conquered mountains, wormed their way into our hearts.

The point is made that we at home, in our cars, don’t sing along with the stars, but the background singers. They’re doing our part.

But even more startling is how damn good these singers are. In our business-centric society, it’s believed that everybody’s fungible. That if you disappeared, you could be replaced. Not so with artists. One singer, one artist, can make a difference.

And it’s a gift. Not everybody can sing.

But we all want to.

If this movie doesn’t make you want to move to Hollywood and pursue your dream in the music business, you were born to be an accountant. How much fun, to sing every day. To be coached by Luther Vandross, to sing backup for David Bowie, to pal around with Mick Jagger.

And Jagger’s fascinating, because he’s CHEEKY!

That’s what we’ve forgotten about our stars. They were individuals. Marching to the beat of a drummer only they could hear. That’s why we pursued them, imitated them, because they cared not a whit about society, about everybody else. Make a deal with BlackBerry? Only if you don’t use my name!

Yes, ponder that. The old stars liked money. But they knew how to manage their careers. They knew they were in bed with the audience, not the U.S. Mint.

And Sting talks about the process, how you can win a TV talent contest but you won’t last, because you haven’t paid your dues, you didn’t take the journey.

As for the applause… If you need that every night, you’re in trouble.

Which brings us back to Ms. Fischer.

She had a successful album. She won a Grammy. But that shows how much that trophy is worth, very little. It won’t keep you warm at night and most people don’t know you’ve won it. You’ve got to keep on earning your bread every day and night. Her solo career flailing, Ms. Fischer takes a job singing backup with the Stones. Watch her performances in this movie and your jaw will drop. How can someone be that f___ing good?

But they all are.

It’s an elite group.

Not of hundreds, but a handful.

You think everybody can do it.

But only a few are qualified.

And qualification is just a start. Especially if you’re a singer… Want to be a star? Then you’ve got to have first class material, a great arranger, and an executive who believes in you. And it’s hard to put all that together.

But those days are through.

Just like the days of expensive sessions, paid for by rich record companies.

Now you record in your basement. Alone. A whole class of professionals has been wiped out. But one door closes, and another one opens up.

Now, more than ever, if you’ve got it, and you’re willing to put in the work, you can make it.

Because we live in a phony, sold-out, duplicitous culture. And honest art cuts through all that crap. People are hungry for truth. And vocalizing is truth.

Anybody can rap, but not everybody can sing, certainly not well.

Get on stage and open your pipes and you can gain an instant audience. People will be spreading the word, tweeting before you even finish your performance. Because we’re all hungry for something good, and it’s human nature to share the experience.

Once upon a time this was the essence of life, the essence of society. If you don’t think music drove the culture in the sixties and seventies, you weren’t there. You listened to the radio to know which way the wind blew. We listened to musicians, not politicians or businessmen.

And the “artists” have abdicated their power. They’ve done what’s expedient. They’re pursuing money and fame, not music.

But there’s power in music.

Just watch this documentary.

It’ll stop you in your tracks.

You’ll marvel that via sheer will and wits and perseverance, a cadre of performers not only had fun, but changed the world.

If you’re not up to the task, go to graduate school, weave a safety net.

Because in art the only thing below you is the floor. And if you don’t fight to stay vertical, you’ll fall flat on your face.

But there’s always room for someone who stands tall. Who’s willing to take the stage, walk up to the microphone and remind us that it’s art that drives the world, not cash, that the power resides in those who dig down deep and reveal themselves to the rest of us, delivering truth and inspiring us, just by being human. No tricks no machines, no money, no sour grapes.

If you’re that good, we’re ready.

Always.

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    […] Bob Lefsetz says: “The point is made that we at home, in our cars, don’t sing along with the stars, but […]

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