Shining a light on the little-known talent behind the talent, this Oscar-nominated documentary is a buoyant, sometimes bittersweet tribute to backup singers, giving them credit long-deserved.
There’s something that happens when you lock in with someone, and the harmonics *ping*…I mean, if you don’t like that, what do you like?
Like last year’s crossover hit Searching for Sugar Man, Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom is pure magic, focusing on a cross-section of the music industry that many don’t give any thought to: the ladies who have backed up more famous musicians for decades, and their struggles in an industry that demands anonymity. The film charts music history from the 50s (when vocal groups were predominately white) onward, as the influence of that black gospel sound transformed pop music forever. Many of these women were preacher’s daughters, and were on the front lines of a cultural movement even as its political corollary raged outside the studios.
But more than being simply fascinating from an historical sense, making use of fantastic archive and concert footage from Ray Charles to Michael Jackson, it lets us into this “sisterhood” to know many of these women personally, and their dreams and disappointments. Neville focuses primarily on three; the first is Darlene Love, whose voice you know from the Christmas classic “Baby Please Come Home,” and was betrayed by record producer Phil Spector when he labeled one of her solo efforts as a group she was not a part of. She, like many others, walked away from the industry when she was unable to pierce through to the general public and stand on her own, but found an unlikely way back in where she least expected it.
Another is the regal Merry Clayton, whose account of the recording of “Gimme Shelter” is absolutely electrifying, and while she was well-known and respected inside the studio community, record labels had no place for her, believing at the time that there was room for only one Aretha Franklin. Clayton’s career arc is equally fascinating; she also sang on “Sweet Home Alabama,” which, for them, was an act of defiance — you’ll never hear the song the same way again. Clayton is a self-described “diva,” but there’s a current of melancholy running just underneath the surface.
The third subject (and the most striking) is the incomparable Lisa Fischer, known as “The Empress,” possessing a soulful, extraordinary voice capable of Olympic-level gymnastics — she tours with the Stones and with Sting, but unlike many of the others only made a half-hearted attempt at going solo; she loves music with every fiber of her being, and is just happy to sing wherever she can. There’s a mesmerizing grace in the way she presents herself, and Neville’s camera loves her (as it should) — when she sings, everything just stops, and you’re reminded of what the human voice is capable of in an age when “pop stars” don’t bother to lay down a good track because the computer can fix it later.
There’s a remarkable dichotomy presented, through more interviews and performances from current and former backups like the Waters Family, Tata Vega, Judith Hill (who sings with Bruce Springsteen), and many more: they’re all ferociously talented, but once you’ve spent a couple decades in a supporting role, you’re not well-equipped to be a self-promoter. Whether through bad luck, dimwitted record executives, or a general public that just doesn’t latch on to what they’re doing, they struggle to make names for themselves. Sometimes, no amount of talent and determination is enough. As the industry began to change in the 1970s and 80s, many were rescued by the Britpop movement, led by talented musicians like David Bowie, Joe Cocker and George Harrison who didn’t have the cleanest voices but knew the value of a great backup singer. So these women simply floated from job to job, from recording booth to recording booth, lending their pipes to many of the most iconic albums of the 20th century, never receiving an ounce of credit from the outside world.
But while some like Love and Clayton found frustration, others embraced life outside of the spotlight. Vega reflects that if she had made it big, “I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d have OD’d somewhere.” Their faith and their humility informs their music, not the other way around. One remarks that modern artists haven’t put in the spiritual work to achieve a success that isn’t “wafer-thin,” and they’re not wrong. This sentiment is echoed by Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Mick Jagger, Sting, and other, actually well-known professionals. They — maybe they alone — know the truth, and see their relationships with their backup singers as a true partnership, one that often leads to new musical discoveries. Jagger and Sting talk about Fischer with real affection, smiling to themselves like they’re in on the best-kept secret in music.
Neville’s musical interludes are gorgeously filmed, and the entire film has a glossy, attractive sheen from the opening credits (set to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” naturally). And with all great documentaries, I was left wanting even more. It could have gone deeper on the social issues, and only obliquely attempts to answer its questions about what really makes a “star,” but every anecdote presented is captivating; every performance is a knockout. I could have spent 90 minutes with Lisa Fischer alone. But 20 Feet From Stardom is an absorbing three-dimensional look at these unsung heroes and their place in musical history, with surprises around every corner.