Wednesday, January 22, 2014


The sounds run through our memories, most notably in Lou Reed's old hit, 'Walk on the Wild Side,' where "the colored girls go do-duh-do," and on the Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter,' when a mysterious female voice  roared, "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away..."  Twenty Feet from Stardom is about the women we heard in the background of our favorite songs, and their struggles to be heard.

They are, we're happy to learn, still living, still healthy, and above all, for the most part, still singing. They were artists in their own right, all with beautiful voices and an uncanny feel for singing background harmonies. They were tough, too, overcoming the instinct of the industry to treat them as eye candy. In many cases these women were more talented than the people they performed behind.
Morgan Neville's intriguing film works on two levels. Along with celebrating the talents and achievements of these singers, it tries to understand why these women, from Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, to more recent singers like Lisa Fischer, and Tata Vega, couldn't  make the move  from the background, to walk that 20 feet to centerstage. It's not that they didn't try - many of them recorded solo albums - it just seems they couldn't sell any records. The documentary features a stirring mid '70s clip of Clayton singing Neil Young's 'Southern Man,' and it's as strong as anything on the air in those days. Still, a music historian suggests the music business could only support one soulful female singer at the time. We already had Aretha Franklin, the thinking went, we don't need another one.
I wonder if that's a flippant reason, but there may be some truth in it. I also wonder if these women simply lacked that indefinable "star appeal," whatever that is.  Bruce Springsteen and Sting are in the film, and  both wearily admit that much of the business relies on luck, and that these women simply didn't have any. 
The women all appear to have come from a church background, where they  learned to sing in the choir. They have good senses of humor, are all intelligent, and each has great confidence in their ability. I liked the way Merry Clayton recounts being in a recording studio at 2:00 AM with the Stones, and quietly deciding to blow the room apart with her vocals. Yet, the women seem to lack the required ego to move to the front of the stage.  Stevie Wonder even warns one of his backing singers to not get too comfortable back there if she wants to progress.
 The women occasionally say they're glad they didn't become stars, for the pressures are too much. The background, they say, is easier and more comfortable for them. There's also a sense that it's rather tasty to be in the background, and that being part of a harmony group is something that not everyone can do. There's a kind of united feeling among the women, that they're part of a special breed. Yet, at least one of them dealt with drug problems, and the rest vary in their attitudes, from perplexed, to disappointed, to resigned as to how their lives turned out. One admits to praying for success,and still seems unsure why God didn't answer her prayers. Another, a beautiful woman who was once part of Ike and Tina Turner's revue and seemed poised for big things,  is now a Spanish teacher. The film hints that she's trying to sing again, and shows her performing for a very small audience in a dimly lighted club, intercut with clips of her sitting on Keith Richard's lap, and posing for Playboy in the '70s.

Darlene Love appears to have the best strategy. With her group The Blossoms, she sang behind everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley. For a time she was being groomed by Phil Spector, but aside from 'Christmas, Baby Please Come Home,' which she recorded in the 1960s, her own career amounted to little.  It was while working as a house cleaner one afternoon that she heard her old song on the radio and decided, at age 40, to make a comeback. She has worked steadily since, highlighted by annual Christmas appearances on David Letterman's show. The key to her happiness seems to be: work hard, love the music, and if you have a gift, you ought to use it. 

"He's got to have a dream, otherwise he'd kill himself." So says Bobby Liebling's mother in the stirring documentary, Last Days Here. Liebling was the front man of Pentagram, a heavy metal group that an agent from Columbia records once described as "a street Black Sabbath." Now Liebling is in his late 50s, looks much older, and lives in his parents' basement, smoking crack and slowly dying. The film looks at a couple years in his life, his attempts to clean up, to fall in love, to restart his band, and ultimately, get out of the basement.

It's hard to like Liebling. When he's on drugs, he's delusional and imagines his body is infested with parasites. He's scratched himself to a horrifying degree, and has to wear cloth casts on his arms to heal his wounds. (One of the rumors about Liebling was that he'd shot so much heroin that his arms were on the verge of being amputated; in the film, they look as if they might fall off.)  When not on drugs, he's self-pitying; he understands that he's never grown up, but he doesn't seem hellbent on doing anything about it.  His parents claim to have spent over a million dollars supporting him and his drug habit. They remember him as a talented little boy; they've seen bands on Saturday Night Live that aren't so hot, so they wonder why their son never got a break.

Actually, he did, back in 1974, when a major record producer brought Pentagram to New York to record a demo tape. This was the step all bands dream about. The producer had previously produced Blue Oyster Cult, and was looking for a new act. Liebling proved difficult to work with, and the producer balked. On another occasion, members of Kiss showed an interest in the band, but Pentagram's makeshift audition was a disaster. The scene is recreated for the documentary, and while it's played for humor, it shows the truth about Pentagram's failure: they could play a bit, but weren't bright enough to take advantage of the good opportunities that came their way.
Since then, Pentagram has lurked on the fringes of cultdom. They were able to record some of their music, which occasionally fell into the hands of collectors. One such collector, Sean  Pelletier, went on to become Liebling's manager, friend, and keeper. Pelletier's in the movie, taking Liebling to the hospital, bailing him out of jail, trying to whip him into some kind of coherency. There are people like Pelletier throughout show business, well-meaning fans who get too close to a has-been. Before they know it, they're in too deep. Ther's a minor subplot here about a 26 year old female fan who strikes up an unlikely relationship with Liebling before slapping a restraining order on him, but the real story is about Liebling and Pelletier. It's interesting to note Pelletier's beard turning grey just within the time the film was made.
Filmmakers Don Argott and Demian Fenton do a good job of compressing Liebling's various personalities into one film. He veers from being the typical addict bent on self-destruction, to the faded rocker who is still full of himself, to a kind of amiable doofus, the sort of guy you might see panhandling under a bridge. The downside is that Pelletier and the filmmakers only relate to Liebling as a performer.  The guy should spend a year in rehab, but they're trying to get him signed to some small record label. The idea is to reform Pentagram with the original members, and do a show. Hence, we'll get the traditional feel good/fade out ending.

Some have called Liebling's parents enablers, but I think Pelletier and the filmmakers are just as guilty, because they're living vicariously through Liebling's return. "He has this Jim Morrison thing where you never know what's going to happen," says Pelletier, which shows you Pelletier is nearly as delusional as Liebling. 
Somehow, Liebling gets his act together and performs for a small crowd. There's even a tacked on coda where he gets married and fathers a child. I suspect the baby isn't his, but that's a subject for another doc. In this one, he plays the gig and gets the girl.

(Last Days Here was released in 2011, and has since floated through the festival circuit, winning some well-deserved awards along the way. It has also been available on various VOD services. I didn't see it until recently. I'm glad I saw it.)

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