How did I miss the Feminist Wire's deliciously nuanced write-up of this movie? Thank GOD it was between this and the newest Wolverine installment at the Balboa Theatre (which is walking distance from my apartment and has two screens total), otherwise I would have missed it altogether.
20 Feet follows Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, and Tata Vega. Their voices everyone knows (because they made the sound of many rock hits) but their names few remember. They've sung (and continue to sing) for acts like David Bowie, Sting, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John.
I was really struck by the narratives of size, sexuality, race and gender that were evident in this film. All of the protagonists were women, most of them deviated from US standards of thinness, and all but one were Black. Theirs were/are the voices - and bodies - used to make white men lead vocalists sound/look better or "rawer."
There were several points in the film where they spoke frankly about oft-neglected themes in the history of rock music. To name a few:
- The appropriation of Gospel and Black musical aesthetics and sound in rock. To quote Sikivu Hutchinson from Feminist Wire on the motivation for this:
As the world’s most rabid consumers of black culture, white folks’ imperialist yearnings to be “black” (from Jack Kerouac to Norman Mailer to Sandra Bernhard) emerge from this grand obsession with the supposed wild, raw, unfettered, close-to-the-bone emotion and physicality of the Black woman belting out soulful paeans to life and love.
- Success ceilings based on (what I call) "token quotas," i.e. there was only room for one Black female solo artist in each genre. In the film, this "token quota" was theorized to be the cause of limitations of Merry Clayton's solo career.
- The ways that body size and sexuality - specifically being considered sexually appealing/available to men - affected their careers and the ways that they strategized around white men's desire. It's hinted that Claudia Lennear and Mick Jagger had something "going on." And later there's a scene from a live show with the Stones where Lisa Fischer is tugging Mick's hair on stage as he leaned back on her, which I read as a sexual performance of dominance that pivoted on Lisa's voluptuousness and her Blackness as contrasted with Mick's whiteness and his thinness.