20 Feet from Stardom (2013) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material
Running time: 91 min.
Cast: Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Mick Jagger, Tata Vega, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Lou Adler, Stevvi Alexander, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin
Director: Morgan Neville
Review published July 26, 2013
20 Feet from Stardom is filmmaker Morgan Neville's (Troubadours, Johnny Cash's America) documentary tribute to some of the best singers in the business. No, not the ones you buy CDs for; the best singers are often the ones standing behind the big stars you've shelled out big money to see. These are some of the backing singers who add mood, power and feeling to some of Rock, Pop, R&B, and Jazz's best and most well-known songs. While these singers are largely unknown to the general public, those in the industry have gained a good deal of notoriety, and some are regularly featured in concerts with some of the world's largest acts.
The film features such singers as Darlene Love (Lethal Weapon 3, 4), who was actually the lead singer for a number of pop hits of the 1960s that were lipsynched by others. Merry Clayton (Wild Orchid II, Maid to Order) has an earthy sound akin to Aretha, but never could translate to a solo act, but gained popularity as the background singer for such songs as the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama". Lisa Fischer (Shine a Light) is a dynamic singer with a rare voice that rivals other big-time singers like Chaka Khan, but never had the passion and ego to be in the forefront, working as a featured singer for Sting and the Rolling Stones. The Waters Family is a trio who lent their voices to Michael Jackson and Disney films. The film also "introduces" us to an up-and-coming singer who has earned a living as a backup singer, though her aspirations clearly run toward the fame and fortune of the spotlight, Judith Hill (This is It), who would go on to try (and not quite succeed) to be a contestant on the TV show, "The Voice".
The bulk of the interviews deals with the background singers and how they cope by never having taken their talent to a major star level. One of the more heartbreaking, but ultimately redeeming, is the story of Darlene Love, one of the most gifted and popular singers of the 1960s that no one had ever heard of. She had been under contract to controlling mega-producer Phil Spector, who used her talents but not her name when releasing a bevy of hits. Love gave the guts but never got the glory she deserved. She eventually would walk away from the business than continue to be undermined, eventually becoming a housekeeper to make ends meet, before ultimately being recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her impressive body of work.
The film does touch on race and gender politics, though not to extreme depths, yet it is difficult to watch the film without realizing that the big stars who come out to discuss the value of the background singers to their popularity (Springsteen, Jagger, Sting, etc.) are mainly white and male, whereas most of the background singers are African-American and female. Springsteen points out that many of the uses of these singers stems from the choral gospel arrangements in the singers backgrounds, which is especially evidenced when each singer reveals herself to be the daughter of a preacher. The closest Neville's doc comes to touching on a racial issue has to do with Merry Clayton's participation in the backing vocals of "Sweet Home Alabama", which she resolves as empowering due to the power of her singing compared to the rest of the song, rather than promoting the pro-South message (it's admittedly hard to go along with this line of justification as we witness a large Confederate flag, no welcome sight to African-Americans, dropped down during their live performance).
Lots of rare archival footage and great music from beginning to end bolster this thoroughly entertaining look at a facet in the business of rock and soul history that is rarely alluded to. 20 Feet is one of the best films of 2013; Neville's film is enlightening, thought-provoking, emotional, and even occasionally powerful. As you listen to tracks featuring the power of background singers to flesh out the sound, you'll remember this important tribute to the nameless, faceless people who you grew up listening to, but never knew it. 20 Feet from Stardom may initially seem like just a side story, but it becomes something compelling by the end; it will forever change the way you listen to music.
©2013 Vince Leo