Finally in the Spotlight: ’20 Feet from Stardom’

Backup singers don’t usually get to be in the spotlight, but 20 Feet from Stardom finally puts them front and center in this captivating documentary about pop music’s unsung heroes.

It must be hard to be a backup singer. You can be talented enough to have performed on stage with Michael Jackson yet be so far from famous that you can still audition for The Voice. That’s the sort of double-edged sword that is put on display in the compelling new documentary by Morgan Neville called 20 Feet from Stardom.

Mick Jagger, of all people, best sums up the entire documentary when, about halfway through the film, he tells the camera, “Singing ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ is kind of fun for a minute. I’m not sure I’d like to do it for a living.”

Twenty Feet from Stardom, now available on Blu-ray and DVD, is a surefire treat for diehard music fans, but it’s also one of the most genuinely interesting documentaries about popular music to be released in the past decade. While it covers a lot of ground in its 90-minute runtime, the film beautifully captures the triumphs and hardships of some of the most important, yet most unknown, voices in pop music, marvelous singers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer.

Even though the general public has virtually no idea who these powerhouse singers are, it knows their voices, as their harmonies have made some of our favorite songs possible. This documentary finally puts Love, Clayton, and Fischer directly in the spotlight, a place they belong even though they’ve spent their careers just a few feet away from it.

The history, the hysterics, the humility, and the heartache are all on display. Though it explores nearly 60 years of background singing, the movie hits almost every note you’d hope for. Its twists and turns are sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating, and always memorable.

The incomparable Love, who sang on everything from Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers, discusses how she didn’t really get any credit for her singing on a number of Phil Spector-produced hits in the ’60s. For example, “He’s a Rebel”, a chart-topping song credited to the Crystals, was actually recorded by Love and her vocal group, the Blossoms.

Love also shares why she once stepped away from recording, and eventually ended up cleaning houses for a living, until she heard her recording of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio while working, and decided to claim her rightful place in the limelight and share her gift with the world once again. There’s so much in her 50-year-career that goes unmentioned in the film, but what’s included is fascinating. Her story is equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming. Can someone make an entire Darlene Love documentary already?

In one of the film’s most haunting moments, Clayton speaks of being summoned to a recording studio in the middle of the night, pregnant and with curlers in her hair, to record a provocative vocal track on “Gimme Shelter”. She recalls someone calling her to say, “There’s a group of guys in town called the Rolling… somebodies. They’re from England. They need somebody to sing with them.”

It’s these sort of fanciful tales that fill the entire film with sparkling energy. However, in the movie there are doses of gloom to be dealt with. Later, Clayton talks candidly about her failed attempts to go solo, despite her aspirations and vocal prowess, which is a common theme in the film. “God sent me to the background,” she says.

Some legendary frontmen like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Sting appear to praise the backup singers they’ve worked with. It comes off as sincere, because it surely is, but their presence also highlights the ego that might be necessary to become a superstar. Ego that seems missing from the film’s subjects.

Fischer’s charm and giving attitude, not to mention her vocal acrobatics, make her portion of the film quite noteworthy, as well; she could probably become a breakout star if enough people view the film. Then again, as the fast-paced documentary points out, she was already a breakout star once before and retreated, in a way, from center stage. Fischer won a Grammy in 1992 for her first single, “How Can I Ease the Pain” but soon decided that the spotlight wasn’t really for her. (She’s since instead opted for gigs like touring with the Rolling Stones.)

I don’t pretend to know if a lot of background singers will see themselves in the story of Fischer and company, but a lot of everyday people will. Ordinary, unheralded individuals who quietly (and thanklessly) do their work and do it well will identify with Fischer’s decision to seek something more important than fame. In this regard, the film, despite some flaws in depth, especially shines. To loosely paraphrase Fischer, her work isn’t about prominence; it’s about a higher calling to share space with people and do something to the best of your ability.

Visually speaking, 20 Feet from Stardom does nothing remotely extraordinary to accompany the sometimes spectacular tales being told. Original interviews are intercut, in typical fashion, with archival footage of performances. Meanwhile, there are some mesmerizing, brief segments of Neville’s movie that are intriguing but wafer-thin in depth like when the female talents discuss feeling demoralized on stage as eye candy or when they reminisce about being versatile enough to make their voice fit with any artist. The documentary also mentions, in only a fleeting sort of way, how modern technology has withered away the once ever-present need for professional background singers.

Most notably, there are clear undertones of gender and racial imbalances in the music industry, but the filmmakers almost entirely sidestep these important issues. If only the documentary took a little more time and dug a little deeper.

Every “talking head” interviewed, and there are many of them, has worthwhile things to say though. Nonetheless, why a trumpeter named Chris Botti gets to share more about background singers than Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, and Bette Midler do is a little baffling. Also, the gifted Oren Waters is inexplicably the only male background singer to provide any sort of meaningful commentary in the movie.

Love, Clayton, and Fisher are, rightfully, the centerpiece of 20 Feet from Stardom. Several other background vocalists, however, are also briefly featured including the Waters family, a group of siblings whose credits range from the Growing Pains theme and the opening song in The Lion King to some of the biggest hits from Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. (For example, that’s the Waters family singing “ma ma se, ma ma sa…” on the King of Pop’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”)

Judith Hill, who recently appeared on The Voice after being scheduled to perform with Michael Jacksonon the ill-fated “This Is It” comeback tour, also shows up momentarily to, no doubt, add a younger, fresh face to the mix of background singers that have tried to find their place as solo artists. Unfortunately, while Hill’s talent and struggles are real, her story just doesn’t compare to the decades of memorable endeavors from the more mature talents like Clayton, Fisher, and Love.

By its conclusion, the film paints a messy, poignant picture of the wide gulf between sheer talent and fame that makes it nearly impossible for these background singers to become household names, but it’s beautiful to witness their talents and learn of their valiant, albeit mostly disappointing, attempts at stardom. Like Springsteen says, “That walk to the front is complicated.” Fortunately, this marvelous film about what goes on in the background with these amazing singers isn’t complicated. It’s simply entertaining.

And if you’ve watched the film, you can back me up on that.


See also PopMatters‘ interviews with Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer and Merry Clayton in Performer Spotlight: The Women of ’20 Feet from Stardom’.

RATING 9 / 10