Star – Motown
Genre – Documentary
Run Time – 91minutes
Certificate – PG13
Country – USA
Oscars – Won One
Awards – Wins 19 & 31 Nominations
Amazon – £4.99 DVD (£870 Blue Ray)
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Sport and music gives black Americans hope. They see their piers up on the sporting and musical stage cutting records (and breaking them) and so they can make it too. But in the early days of pop music it was the black female backing singers who paved the way for the Beyonce’s of today to make their billions. Young shapely women with stunning passionate voices would do their beewop and deewop thing in sync and harmony while the mostly white stars took the plaudits and the ones dazzled by flashbulbs and spotlights. Some of the girls would even be the voices of the white stars that didn’t quite have the powerful reach and watch the artists mime their voices under another name. It was exploitation and your mostly white managers owned you back then in the music business. Autotune was invented long before Simon Cowell. Black singers did have solo careers that was more to d with oversupply of great voices than been given a leg up by the industry
The Caucasian backing singers that preceded the black backing girls in the 1950s had it easier, often reading the lyrics from a piece of paper during the show. But the 1950s sound didn’t have the gospel soul black singers had and in the 1960s most backing singers were black and not so keen to just blend in. They would belt out their beewops and exploit the situation to try and get noticed, producing an amazing roar sound. Most of the girls came up through gospel churches and simply more powerful projection than white girls. The black American girls loved to work with British bands like The Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker as they would let the girls really express themselves as if they were in church. In America they were more controlled and their just to blend in, more of that subtle racism.
At the time of Phil Spectors ‘Wall of Sound’, his instinctive studio production method which attracted British artists over to America to sample popular American songs, the girls would really be under the thumb. The Brits would then make a cover version, release it in the U.K charts and then export it back to America if it was a hit. As with Darlene Love, they would stop playing your version and start playing the Brits version in the US. Unless you owned the rights to your own songs you were pretty much a voice for hire. It’s the songs that make the money.
Although the film appears on the surface to about backing singers and their achievements it’s really a film about race and regret. From artists that nearly made it to the ones that didn’t want to make it and remained a backing singer, not wanting to make that twenty feet forward, even though they were more talented than the girl out front, there is real regret in their faces as they recall those highs and lows. We follow that story through the lives of Mary Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fisher and many others, black women with incredible voices that almost quite made it. That’s why you have never heard of those names and incredible voices. Darlene Love did try to be a solo artist and broke from the pack, making records with Phil Spector no less. But Phil screwed her over by selling her hit song to a British artist just two weeks later and her career would fizzle out soon after, to the point where she was cleaning houses for a living in the very stars houses she help to make. Imagine dusting and scrubbing one of those marvel houses and your song comes on the radio, credited to another artiste.
What this joyous documentary doesn’t want to do is get too political and it’s left to you to workout just how exploited the girls were in the business back then. Race is never mentioned but it’s the beating dark heart of the documentary. We don’t know if the white artists were paid more than the black ones – backing singers or stars – but we presume so. Now the girls are all grown up they still don’t seem to want to let rip on how the white man held them back from being famous. There is a real pathos here on that as they reminisce about their glory days. The girls are not presented as losers, rather than underpaid and steeped in yearning and regret. Some are teachers; others are retired but all still love to sing. And it’s that passion for singing that makes the documentary, some great tunes to tap your feet along to and some exhilarating archive footage of the girls at their prime. The nicest moments are when the racism isn’t there and they are treated as equals by the artists. And the film is Celebrity packed. You name it they are in it. Springsteen, Elton John, Sting, Sheryl Crowe…
This film is a message to all of us who have talent, whether recognized or not. It’s a movie that gives hope with some home truths. That hope delivered $6 million at the box office, good money for an American documentary. I definitely would watch this one guys as its one of the best music documentaries for a while. It probably clinched the Oscar because of its themes around redemption and recognition for black artists ticking all The Academy boxes but still right up there in feel good films.
Imdb.com –7.4 /10.0 (8,345 votes)
Rottentomatos.com –99% critic’s approval
Metacriitc.com – 83% critic’s approval
Leonard Maltin Film Year Book – 3/4
Sight & Sound –‘Consciously avoiding a Dreamgirls vibe that suggests their failure was a showbiz tragedy, Neville lets his subjects unabashedly strut their stuff’.
The Spectator –‘ As directed by Morgan Neville, who obviously adores these women, it's their hopes and disappointments, triumphs and heartbreaks and fabulous, passionate personalities that takes this film to another level, and will take you with it’.
Financial Times –‘This is a musical field of dreams high in corn, but also, sometimes, in the epiphanic empowerment and wonder of stardom conferred’.
The Baltimore Times-‘ Although a few white and male backup singers appear, the film becomes a de facto chronicle of the experiences of many African-American women in show business, who -- like their counterparts in less high-profile jobs -- often are undervalued and exploited.
Scotsman –‘The message is that singing is a higher calling than chart success - a point this history makes with intelligence, grace and killer music’.
Birmingham Post –‘ When you stop to realize what these girls have done to enrich your life, only for one to become a cleaner and another to start teaching Spanish, your tears will be rea’l.
Launched in 2004, UKTV People is a UK digital television channel, and is part of the UKTV network, which also includes UKTV Drama and UKTV Food, amongst others. The channel was created, along with UKTV Documentary, as a replacement for UK Horizons, which closed the day before this channel started.
The output of this channel is solely documentaries, and most of them are BBC programmes. These documentaries tend to be of the lighter variety, as opposed to the more serious programming of UKTV Documentary. Unlike the original broadcasts on the BBC the programmes are interrupted by advertising and as with the rest of the UKTV network it seems that the person making the decisions about where to put the commercial breaks clearly do not watch the actual programmes as the edits seem quite random at times.
UKTV People is available on both the Sky (on channel 534) and Virgin Media (on channel 206) digital platforms. A timeshifted version, showing the same programmes but an hour later, used to be available but was cut from the UKTV network in 2006.
Three of my favourite programmes on the channel include:
A fly-on-the-wall series about the goings on at London's Heathrow Airport.
In each episode a member of the public lives and trains with an expert. They then compete against experienced participants in the activity that they have learned, with a panel of judges trying to work out which one is the 'fake'.
Another fly-on-the-wall series, this time following the day-to-day working lives of traffic officers from a variety of police forces across the country. Each episode shows a different problem that the police have to deal with and then show how they deal with it.
Overall, if you like your light, fly-on-the-wall style documentaries then this is the channel for you.