One of the Best Rockumentaries Ever Made Tells Story of Background Singers to Superstars

"20 Feet from Stardom" shows how backup singers for the Rolling Stones, Bowie and the Talking Heads have been used, abused and occasionally cherished.

It’s one of the best music documentaries ever made—but that’s because the music, the storyline, and the characters’ artistry and life stories are phenomenal and compelling.

On the surface, 20 Feet From Stardom tells the story of the overlooked but not underheard background singers whose astounding voices gave classic rock-and-roll and R&B much of their punch and soul. But the movie is more than a walk down musical memory lane to give belated credit to some of the most talented women—mostly women of color—who have appeared in a single film.

The documentary scrolls through the musical history of the past half-century to show how backup singers were used, sometimes abused, and occasionally cherished by the producers and stars of the day. Do the names Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton or Tata Vega ring any bells? Hill was slated to sing duets with Michael Jackson before his untimely death. Merry Clayton was summoned to a New York City studio after midnight by the Rolling Stones, and wearing a fur coat and hair curlers, decided she would impress a band she didn’t even know, giving us the beyond harrowing call-and-response in Gimme Shelter. Darlene Love sang on so many of egomaniac producer Phil Spector’s 1960s hits that he bought out her contract for a competitor, intentionally stifling her solo prospects.

And then there’s the women who helped the Talking Heads get funky. And there’s Luther Vandross backing up David Bowie. And Claudia Lennear with Ike and Tina Turner. They were young and beautiful. They didn’t grasp the depths of their talent and appeal. And more often than not, they were channeling a direct line from the African-American church choir into white-dominated mainstream pop culture. 

The movie explores why some of them didn’t make it to stardom on their own. After all, millions of people knew their voices. As Sting tells the camera, show business isn’t fair. But he—and Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow and others—all say how it takes an inner strength, a certain kind of ego and luck to become a star. Jagger is almost embarassed that Merry Clayton is backing him up.

The singers in the movie possess exceptional amounts of inner strength and creative drive. However, as the film explores in its subtler moments, knowing what lead singers need to make them sound better, and giving it to them on stage, is not the same as knowing what you might want to sing and say as a bandleader in your own right. Thus the title, 20 feet from stardom, makes this gulf seem smaller than it may be.

Some of the artists, like Lisa Fischer, are content to join bands like the Stones and be a staple of their sound for decades. Others, like Darlene Love, tried to launch solo careers and didn’t quite make it, but have been recognized for their earlier achievements. Still others, like Judith Hill, are still trying to be stars and the closeups of her at the piano and singing makes one wonder, how can anyone that good not succeed? And yet, when she tried to launch a solo career after Michael Jackson’s death, she was eliminated from network television’s The Voice this spring. But, one hopes, unlike former Ikette Claudia Lennear, she doesn’t give up and her transcendent talent will triumph.         

All this and more is in this amazing film. The director, Morgan Neville, taps into a super-rich vein of human spirit and musical inspiration. Whether you go to see vintage footage with the likes of Billy Preston playing Hammond organ behind Ray Charles—before he became part of the Beatles—or to focus on the singers’ stories and their late-in-life recognition, it doesn’t matter. This movie captures large souls, big music and triumphant spirits.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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