Injustice in the music business is one of the themes shared by three summer music documentaries now playing in theaters or on demand. Twenty Feet From Stardom, A Band Called Death and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me all concern the lives of musicians who did not reap the benefits of success their superstar counterparts or even their industry’s executives enjoy. These tales of a typically unkind, fickle and often unethical music business are told far too often: There is of course a long tradition of broke and hungry blues singers and ripped-off rock’n’rollers; perhaps most famous are the Funk Brothers, creators of the Motown sound, whose untold history became Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the blueprint for these kind of behind the veil stories. And yet, the background vocalists of Twenty Feet… and the musicians of the ironically named ‘70s bands, Death and Big Star, though largely overlooked, unsung, and often underpaid themselves, also delivered life-giving music of lasting value—music far more focused and accomplished than many of their more successful name brand peers.
Much to the younger generation of musicians in their family’s delight, the Hackney brothers co-created punk rock in early ‘70s Detroit. A Band Called Death is their story, as told by surviving brothers Bobby and Dannis, with credit due to brother David for the vision. Inspired by their minister dad’s insistence they watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the boys formed a band; as rock evolved, so did their sound. David aimed to combine the guitar chords of Pete Townshend of the Who with the leads of Jimi Hendrix. With Bobby’s vocals and bass, and Dannis’ agility on drums central to the crunch, David’s idea came into focus, though it had also been shaped by forces much stranger than spine-chilling rock’n’roll. Impacted by the accidental death of their father, David’s idea—a hard rock threesome named Death with a triangular mind-body-spirit logo was an entire concept, though it turned out to be a bit much for listeners to metabolize in the post-‘60s hour of segregated rock and soul. It is generally agreed among band and family, record industry personnel and public perception that David’s extreme construct did the band no favors, particularly when they were very close to getting a record deal with Clive Davis and David wouldn’t budge. “First you let them change your name and then…” You may as well surrender your soul is the implication, and there is truth in those words. Though he and his brothers’ band were consigned to the rare and forgotten records rack for 30 years, David’s vision, that Death would one day be poplar after he was gone, turned out to be prophecy. A Band Called Death lets that story unfold, as it unleashes the power and excitement of the music, highlighting its timelessness and virtuosity. For non-believers, their pure rock’n’roll single, “Keep on Knocking,” may be the convincer: I never tire of it and could happily spin it over and over and over again.
If there is such a thing as rock justice, revived career status may also be in the balance for some of the singers profiled in Twenty Feet From Stardom, a look at the ladies (and one man) who sing the background vocals to the soundtrack of your life. To their tremendous credit, director Morgan Neville and producer and industry vet Gil Friesen don’t flinch from the cruelty of the record business, a model that has historically cheated its true talent while rewarding mediocre copycats. The film debuted at the Sundance Festival and screened earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival and is told by the vocalists Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, their contemporary counterparts, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, and the musicians they sing for (Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger). With differing degrees of yearning for the spotlight, each woman shares her own tale of what it was like to sing behind Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson and in the case of Love, for producer Phil Spector (now serving a prison sentence for murder). Both Fischer and Lennear, emerge as the pair who crave little more than what they have: Fischer’s devoted to her gift and married to the music and a life on a road. Lennear stepped back and became a teacher, though as a result of the film and revisiting her years alongside George Harrison, Joe Cocker, and Ike and Tina Turmer, she’s been inspired to reclaim her place in the spotlight. Here’s her version of the Beatles song, “Let It Be.”
Perhaps most depressing in this downbeat trio of tales is Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a story of unrequited loves and life let downs. Chris Bell, who alongside Alex Chilton, was a principle songwriter on the Memphis group’s first album, left the fold under what the film portrays as mysterious circumstances. What’s clear however, is that he was touched by substance abuse, and sexual and religious confusion, and all the troubles conspired to takeaway his life at the cursed rock’n’roll age of 27. It didn’t help that Big Star’s record label, Ardent, was affiliated with Stax, though while giants of the soul industry were experiencing business and reorganization troubles just as they crossed the bridge toward releasing rock’n’roll records. And then there is Chilton, a vocal talent with qualities so chameleon-like, and a reticence to be interviewed, that he’s hard to pin down. The teenaged soul singer of “The Letter” shifted gears in Big Star, and yet again in his post-band, punkish years; he passed away in 2010 before the completion of the film, and his presence in it is confined to audio and performance clips. It would’ve been interesting to hear what he might say of his former band from a 60-year-old’s vantage point, but without him or Bell to speak for themselves, the real story of Big Star largely remains a mystery, to be filed under bands that never made it, but could have, if only the stars had aligned in their favor. Though their story is grim, their recording legacy is the prize: “The Ballad of El Goodo” from #1 Record, is a collaborative effort between Chilton and Bell, a power-pop freedom song:
Though I would not characterize any one of these music documentaries as uplifting, within the frames of each reel, and certainly within the individual stories, there are flashes of reverence, bright spots of humor, and in all cases, impeccable music. There is no shortage of stories like these, ready to unspool and cast the music business as it was once known in its true, unflattering light. I don’t want to say I’m happy that everyone can see for themselves the hit parade of human sacrifice, left in the wake of what it takes to create superstar entertainment for the masses. Nor do I delight in the music industry’s complete and total rupture. But it’s no doubt valuable for music consumers, just like consumers of other goods, to know a little bit more about what goes into the making of product they love so much. The music business is a killer, with very little to do with the art of its creators. Certainly it has shown little to no compassion for the health and welfare of musicians, without whom, there would be no primary product. Perhaps it’s best we no longer fool ourselves into thinking that talent and excellence are qualifications for success, no matter what business we may find ourselves. The artist or worker without a killer instinct, will need to make a choice: Take a backseat willingly, or be content, to be left standing in the shadows.