In the 1972 song “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed conjures up the now iconic image of “colored girls” lulling a hipster tale of New York debauchery in the background. Using Reed’s tribute as an introduction, white director Morgan Neville’s bittersweet documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” attempts to bring the black backing singers to the fore with poignant and troubling effect.

From the 1950s to the present, white America “walked on the wild side” through the sweet tones and searing power of black women’s voices. Then as now, black R&B music used to be the “colorful” backdrop to “all-American” white pop culture scenes of spree, romance, and heroism. For the white consumer of the postwar Jim Crow era, the commercial boom of rock and R&B transformed racial otherness into a more conventional adventure; a resort vacation with uncharted views of self-discovery that anyone with a radio or a few pennies for a 45 record could take. As the most rabid consumers of black culture in the world, the imperialist yearnings of whites to be “black” (from Jack Kerouac to Norman Mailer and Sandra Bernhard) stem from this great obsession with what is supposed to be wild, raw, unfettered. , close to the -bone emotion and physicality of the black woman singing moving hymns to life and love. Without racial terrorism, segregation and the ghetto, blackness has always been a sexy place to “eat the other”.

The accompaniment of black women was crucial to the evolution of modern rock and R&B, reinforcing such disparate songs as Crystal’s “He a Rebel” and the Stones “Gimme Shelter” and turning them into richly textured classics. “20 Feet” captures the profound parody of darkness, marginalization, and often poverty, these pioneering artists faced. Featuring multi-generational artists such as Merry Clayton (who provided the powerful voice in Gimme Shelter), Darlene Love, the Waters family, Tata Vega, Lisa Fisher, and Judith Hill, the film’s broad historical journey shows how much and how little has changed. . The women of the colored backing singers are still treated as expendable objects, eye candy, and soulful exotics as they fight tooth and nail for recognition and an opportunity on center stage.

The trajectory of the fiercely talented Darlene Love is the template and touchstone of the film. Really ripped off by famous producer and (now) incarcerated killer Phil Spector, Love was the voice of many of the most humble R&B classics of the sixties. While her voice on the smash hit “He is a rebel” made her the most sought after studio singer, she did not have the opportunity to appear in public singing her own work. Love describes the indignity of seeing the Crystals become the public face of her song; lip syncing to a number one record as he battled Spector for what he deserved. As has been well documented, the exploitation of black artists became institutionalized in the music industry. Elvis Presley and dozens of “pioneering” white artists and producers built their careers, empires and international stardom on the backs of uncompensated and uncredited black artists. However, the film is silent on the gigantic battles that black artists fought for recognition and royalties. Love’s decades-long struggle with Spector is her only nod to the insidious gender and racial politics that fueled capitalist exploitation in the industry.

Similarly, there are only fleeting critical comments about the sexist objectification of black female vocalists and how this ultimately stunted their careers. Images from Ike and Tina Turner magazine are used to highlight stereotypes of wild black female hypersexuality, underscoring the bond faced by women who wanted to be successful in the industry. Singer Claudia Lennear, a former “Ikette” and Rolling Stones showgirl, comments on the requirement that the Turners’ showgirls wear scantily clad clothes. Then he deflects questions about his own decision to pose for Playboy. Unfortunately, the film never deepens its appreciation of sexism (especially its implications for the modern phenomenon of “video ho,” an image of the black woman that is one of the most enduring and degrading global exports of rap and hip hop). Reflecting on Turner and his rise to fame in his piece “Selling Hot Pussy”, bell hooks wrote “The black woman’s body gains attention only when it is synonymous with accessibility, availability; when it is sexually deviant … The singing career Turner’s has been based on the construction of the image of black female sexuality that becomes synonymous with wild animal lust … Ike’s decision to create the wild black woman was perfectly compatible with the prevailing representations of black female sexuality in a white supremacist society. ” Hooks’ perspective would have been a welcome antidote to the obscene and ridiculous ignorance of USC professor Todd Boyd, who comments that Ike played the role of “pimp” for his stable of “hos” (ie Tina and the Ikettes). . As if to confirm this, the camera cuts to a shot of Turner, Lennear, and the Ikettes twirling and leaning suggestively in micro minis and high heels at a raucous outdoor concert.

Hooks notes that Tina Turner’s image was shaped by Ike’s “misogynistic pornographic imagination” and his obsession with jungle movies. The subtext of the film is the resistance of black women to this type of sexualization and to the regime of the male gaze (corporate, white, ageist, mainstream). It is a narrative that unfolds despite the political limitations of the white director who is clearly captivated by the “mystique” of the black soul. This tension is reflected early on in the dichotomy the film constructs between the dominant cultural norms of white female respectability and “authentic” black femininity. Commenting on the origins of the backing singer tradition, the narrator contrasts the moderate sobriety of the white vocalists with the “raw” abandon of the mostly gospel-trained black vocalists. “We called them ‘readers,’ ” says Darlene Love, referring to the mainstream white method of simply singing the notes on the page without injecting passion and spontaneity into the delivery. Reinforcing the stereotype of” natural “black soul singing” bestowed by God “talent, the film does not explore the musical training and vocal instruction that some of these black artists undoubtedly received. However, the sheer discipline and tenacity of the backup singers is conveyed by their testimony about marathon recording sessions that last throughout the years. the night, demanding concerts, tours and operating conditions.

While the commentary provided by each singer is enlightening, it would be inconceivable for a retrospective on white male singers to present virtually all black musicians, historians, technicians, and producers as experts on the subject of their careers. However, this is the “benign” structure that sets “20 feet”. For nearly two hours, the women appear through the eyes of their mostly white male employers, rock and pop superstars like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Chris Botti, and a variety of white male experts in the subject. Presumably, the Hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Michele Wallace, Joan Morgan, Tricia Rose, and dozens of other black feminist scholars and music historians were not available to critically contextualize these women’s experiences. This large deficit makes “20 Feet of Stardom” a meta-reflection of the ongoing struggle women of color must wage for political visibility, historical validation, and culturally sensitive scholarship.

Attempting to evoke the social upheaval of the 1960s, the film shows archival footage of the Black Panthers and the iconic raised fist salute of black athletes at the 1968 Olympics to evoke black consciousness. We catch a glimpse of Katherine Cleaver, but no other black female figure or activist is evoked. It would have been powerful to hear what Cleaver, a esteemed legal scholar and feminist critic, would have had to say about Merry Clayton’s decision to sing backing on the 1974 Allman Brothers song “Sweet Home Alabama,” a racist tribute to Dixie. . Clayton sadly criticizes “Alabama” and describes the force it put into her voice as an act of resistance, reflecting the contradictions of an era in which black artists felt they had to conform to visions of white supremacy in order to survive. But apparently giving this narrative a critical, academic and black feminist voice would have been too much to walk on the “wild side.”

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