Sometimes a singer can get very close to stardom, and yet remain a thousand miles away. Or at least a few feet away. The documentary 20 Feet from Stardom by Morgan Neville explores some of the greatest backup singers of all time who, for reasons hard to explain exactly, never got the recognition nor stardom they deserved. With this film, that will change.
The energy and passion of the music in this movie comes through vibrantly loud and clear in almost every frame. Front and center are the singers who are usually hidden in the shadows of the superstars they support. These are primarily, though not exclusively, African-American women who came from church choirs where their fathers were ministers, and who learned to completely and joyously embrace the call and response of the minister and his congregation.
The spotlight here turns and shines on Darlene Love, Mary Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Janice Pendarvis and so many more. Love was in the Blossoms, one of the first “girl groups” to take the place of the heretofore predominately white “readers” who acted as backups for such singers as Perry Como and who seemed to be note perfect, but who brought little of the soul the Blossoms added to the songs.
Then the film tracks such groups as the Ikettes who supported Ike and Tina Turner, the Raelettes who were behind Ray Charles, and a myriad of others. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Bette Midler are among the superstars who comment on the power and beauty of these singers who remained to the side or behind the marquee names.
Neville explores the individual stories of many of the singers and the various reasons that they did not become superstars in their own right. Whether it be the lack of the ego necessary to carry them to the next step, or business concerns which put a halt to their ambitions, the reasons are as diverse and varied as the singers themselves.
Yet, when that spotlight is put on them, it’s impossible not be transfixed by Mary Clayton or Lisa Fischer singing behind or beside Mick Jagger in songs such as “Gimme Shelter,” or listen in amazement as Fischer adds her voice to Sting’s “The Hounds of Winter” that is so mesmerizing it will melt your heart and leave you gazing in wonder.
This is singing as good as anyone you will ever hear, and better than some of the new “superstars” who currently get the accolades. From the first scene to the last, the music and singing are so stunning they will have you racing home to find the songs on which these singers performed.
20 Feet from Stardom joins Searching for Sugar Man and It Might Get Loud as one of the best music documentaries of the past few years. One thing is certain, you will never again underestimate the grace, beauty and power of backup singers lending their voices to the stars who are center stage. For anyone who has ever had any interest in pop/rock music, especially the music going back 30 to 50 years, this is a must see. Not everyone can be a superstar, but as these singers prove, not just anyone can be a backup singer either. Listen to Darlene Love sing “Lean on Me.”
The joy, the spirit, the soul which emanates from her and the other singers will have you applauding and begging for more. Just as you would a superstar…..
guest post by Ron Wells
Details: Millions know their voices, but no one knows their names. In his compelling new film Twenty Feet From Stardom, award-winning director Morgan Neville shines a spotlight on the untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. Triumphant and heartbreaking in equal measure, the film is both a tribute to the unsung voices who brought shape and style to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others.Release Date: June 14, 2013 (limited)
Director: Morgan Neville
Starring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Chris Botti