Directed by: Morgan Neville.
Featuring: Lou Adler,Stephanie 'Stevvi' Alexander, Patti Austin, Chris Botti, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Merry Clayton, Sheryl Crow, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Mick Jagger, Mabel John, Gloria Jones, Jo Lawry, Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love, Lynn Mabry, Bill Maxwell, Bette Midler, Nia Peeples, Janice Pendarvis, Phil Spector, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Luther Vandross, Táta Vega, Stevie Wonder.
Because I am a fan of the Rolling Stones and Martin Scorsese, I have heard one of their greatest songs – Gimme Shelter – approximately a million times. If you know the song, you know that it doesn’t just feature Jagger on vocals, but has a memorable refrain that has a dynamic female voice singing at full tilt. It’s one of my favorite vocal performances of all time, and until 20 Feet to Stardom, I never knew who sang it. Now I know – it was Merry Clayton – who had a long career as a backup singer, but was never able to break through as a solo artist. 20 Feet to Stardom is about Clayton – and many others like her – who have all the talent – in some cases much more talent – than the music stars we all know and love, but for whatever reason never had much success as a solo artist. Documentaries exist for stories like this.
The movie begins its narrative in the 1960s. In the early days of the decade, backup singers where pretty, blonde and boring – they faded into the background, because that is what they were expected to do. But through the decade, backup singers changed – and that’s mainly because people started letting African American singers background. These women could sing with the best of them, and if you had a producer – like Phil Spector – who knew how to use them, they could elevate any song they worked on. Spector had Darlene Love under contract – and she sang backup on many songs, and even recorded songs that were released under other band’s names. Spector kept promising her a career of her own – but never delivered – and because she was under contract, there was little she could do about it. When her contract finally ended, she signed somewhere else – hopeful to finally get her career off the ground – only to have her new label “sell her” back to Spector. It may have taken decades, but at least Love finally got some recognition – she’s in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Most of the other backup singers will never get that sort of recognition.
Watching 20 Feet from Stardom is fascinating in a number of ways. First of all, who ever really thinks about the backup singers? We see them in every concert, standing in the background, dancing and adding in some vocals, but no one really pays much attention to them. But this is why a documentary about them works so well – they have seen a lot in the music industry, worked on some of the greatest songs of all time, and have many stories to tell. And secondly, it makes you hear songs that you have known for years in an entirely different light – whether it’s Gimme Shelter or Bowie’s Young Americans or Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side to Sweet Home Alabama and everything in between. It’s amazing home much of those songs greatest moments come not from the frontman, but the backup singers.
And it’s also fascinating to see what makes the difference between becoming a star and not. It’s rarely talent – after seeing this movie, you’ll have to say that rarely have you ever heard a better singer than Lisa Fischer – but despite a Grammy for her solo album, she never became a celebrity in her own right – and still sings backup (and loves it). Racism certainly played a role in some of the people in this movie not making it. Or sometimes, they don’t have the right “look”. Or while they are talented singers, they are dependant on others for songwriting and promotion. Sometimes it’s a lack of ego or ambition – a willingness to grab hold of it and not let go. And often it’s just plain old dumb luck.
20 Feet from Stardom is a wonderful documentary – that is angry and sad yet invigorating and inspirational. It shines a light on a little considered corner in the world of music. This is the type of story that documentaries are made for.