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’Memphis’ and ’20 Feet From Stardom’

Saturday 28 June 2014, by Coco Green

’American Idol’ owes me, big time. Whilst they didn’t clip my wings during an audition by highlighting my average singing talent, their on-screen auditions showcasing amazing, (allegedly) undiscovered vocal talent has served to divert my attention from the lives of amazing, discovered vocal talent that still has not ’made it’. ’20 Feet from Stardom’ is a documentary profiling background singers, covering the last 50 years and reminding us that talent is one thing many aspiring singers are not short on. As a companion film ’Memphis’ offers a fictional account of a talent who made it but is unable to maintain the dual identity of successful singer and creative artist. Willis Earl Beal, a singer with a powerful sound and spirit that ’made it’ is shown to have lost the creative impulse, reminding us that the course of stardom and success is rarely one of pure ascension. prompting questions about the effects of fame and success on talent. Willis doesn’t sing the blues, he is the blues.

’20 Feet from Stardom’ changes our frame of reference for the ingredients which we assume create a superstar. We want to believe it’s about talent, hard work, creative drive, hunger for fame, musical ability and maybe a bit of luck, to fulfil our need for whimsy, but we are forced to face Black (and one Latina) women with all these characteristics and more who either remain in the background boosting the careers of others by singing hooks, or who have abandoned their dreams of stardom. While there are two standouts that beat the odds (Darlene Love and Judith Hill), these stories reflect the tensions between talent, artistry and the marketplace. The fates of these background singers are a powerful critique of an industry which is happy to use African-American, Baptist church gospel sounds for profit, but is less happy to promote this commodity when it cannot be neatly packaged for white audiences.

I argue that ’Memphis’ partners well with this ’20 Feet...’ because the secondary message about the magic of music in ’20 Feet’ is primary in ’Memphis’ which is all about the creative process, what that means for a vocalist and why music is as much an art as the story of the artist (when done well, anyway). Together the films present the fates and struggles of immensely talented vocalists that leaves us wondering what allows some people to make it and not others? Is it luck, magic or the marketplace? Or do ’true artists’ not even want to ask or answer these questions?

Memphis, Dir: Tim Sutton, 2013
20 Feet from Stardom, Dir: Morgan Neville, 2013

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