Bill Banfield is a professor of Africana Studies/ Music and Society and director of the Center for Africana Studies and programs at Berklee. An award-winning composer, jazz guitarist /recording artist, public radio show host, he has authored five books for Scarecrow Press on music, arts, cultural criticism, and history.
I had been waiting to see Lisa Fischer and hear what she sounded like, breathed like, live in person. We have all been pleasantly stunned by 20 Feet from Stardom. This is a film about the lives of the background singers. The film follows the behind-the-scenes of singers Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Jo Lawry. On January 16, it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards.
And there she was, at Berklee on a panel moderated by Berklee professor Janice Pendarvis, who was also featured in the film, and included Berklee family members Donna McElroy, Gabriel Goodman, Carl Beatty, and singer Janie Barnett.
The panel, along with an assembled audience, first watched the film, then went into an in-depth discussion with Lisa on aspects of the film, its impact, and how it illuminated the many corners of the room of record-making, singing, performing, and living; in other words, walking in the shoes of dynamic “background singers” and their processes.
20 Feet from Stardom was one of the highlight movie moments for me in 2013, and people are now talking about its message and impact. This was a powerful film, because of the ways in which it raised the focus on other aspects of music making, from the vantage point of the supportive roles. Yet, a major issue was the negative impact the industry can have because of the normative ways in which the star is the singular focus and given most of the attention. So it begs the question about our emphasis here and the costs of that flawed view. The film draws attention to the way secondary roles are many times more important in the way they allow the lead to emerge as a flower of a well-connected whole.
This was a film about the role of background singers, mostly women, who provide an essential component to the sound and the success of any great record. This was a movie that gave much from all sides. Although all the artists were fabulous, Lisa Fischer was my favorite because there was something about her vulnerability that spoke of the ambivalence of being a star, yet shows the complete dedication of hard-working artists.
“A few things have changed for me in my life. It’s interesting to see yourself through the eyes of another human being. We don’t look in ourselves most times, we are focused on who needs us at the moment, or what am I going to need in the future, what have I done. We are not really looking at ourselves. It’s different now because the film has forced me to look at myself. And that’s something I’ve never really taken the time to do.”
I also thought the success of this film was the balance between being informative, and being reflective, being a historical document, and yet being a contemporary critique of industry and market taste practices, making us all appreciate the totality of what music-making and record-making entails—and that these are human tales and processes, about extraordinary talent and perseverance.
For me Hollywood is rarely good, but this is a film that highlights the best that we are and still may become. I say, ” Beat On.”