The title “Twenty Feet from Stardom” implies a missed opportunity at being famous; to be so close and yet so far. But the business careers of backup singers are by far the least interesting aspect of Morgan Neville‘s documentary. Where Twenty Feet from Stardom shines is in using the perspective of backup singers to explore music history, race, collaboration, and performance. Backup singers Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Tata Vega share their bittersweet stories of how the business may have kept them down, but that there’s arguably more value in singing as part of a group. The claim never sounds disingenuous as their passion always rings loud and clear.
Neville doesn’t lead off with the business side of backup singing. Instead, he talks about its musical necessity, and how the art form brings a fresh perspective to the musicians we think we know. Although the documentary includes interviews with famous recording artists such as Bruce Springsting, Sting, Sheryl Crowe, and Stevie Wonder, these artists only help to explain the stories and importance of Love, Clayton, Fischer, and Vega. By talking directly with these backup singers, we reevaluate the art of musical performance removed from ego of leading performers.
It may seem odd to single out backup singers as opposed to any other background musician, but as the singers point out, the voice is “God-given”. It’s a gift, and it’s one that they pursue since birth through surprisingly similar circumstances. All of the major backup singers interviewed are black women, and we learn that they almost all came from religious background as the daughters of pastors or preachers. Then they grow up in a choir, and they learn the value of singing as a group. As Fischer points out, they have a “sisterhood”. This sisterhood develops as they frequently work together and experience the historical developments throughout their lives, specially the influence of the civil rights movement.
After establishing the singers’ personalities and their backgrounds, Neville takes us on an interesting journey through 1960s-1990s pop-rock history and shows how the roles of these singers grew, expanded, and then was sadly constrained again. The backup singers explain how the fullness of music changed and improved when they were given more freedom to exercise their voices. It’s not about letting these singers run free and steal the spotlight; it’s about letting them use their gift for the benefit of all. One of the film’s best moments is when Clayton recalls getting dragged out of bed at 2:00 AM so that she could sing the backup lyrics in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. It’s wonderful to hear about that piece of music history, and to see her and Mick Jagger recall the moment and how essential she was to that song’s success. Neville’s direction also shines as we see present-day Clayton come into the recording studio, and listen to the work she did decades ago. It’s so rewarding to see such unselfish behavior, and you never doubt for a moment the absolute love these artists have for their craft and for each other.
As the film moves towards the end, Neville explores the individual careers of the backup singers, which undermines the larger point of their sisterhood and collaboration. It’s an interesting aspect and one that couldn’t be overlooked, but it’s far less fulfilling than the other parts of the story. As Sting points out, the distance between the lead singer and the backup singer can be bridged by luck. Neville spends too much time on the capriciousness of fame, and how the solo careers of the film’s backup singers were usually crushed by politics. This kind of examination pales in comparison to the richness we see when looking at the art, history, performance, and personalities of these remarkable women.
By moving back “twenty feet”, Neville offers the audience a fantastic vantage point on a musical world we thought we knew. Twenty Feet from Stardom beautifully illuminates how we have drastically underappreciated those who have contributed so much to music history. If you’ll forgive the pun, they are truly the unsung heroes of the music we love, and Neville’s tribute to their work will have you rushing out to check out their solo albums, and re-listening to the songs they helped turn into classics.
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