Twenty Feet from Stardom is a documentary film which delves into the life of the backing singer, and represents in some way a long overdue attempt to give backup singers the recognition and attention they so richly deserve. The idea for this Morgan Neville directed film came from the film’s producer Gil Friesen, whose curiosity to find out more about the lives of backing singers within the music industry influenced it’s making. The film focuses mainly on prominent backing singers Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Jo Lawry and Claudia Lennear among others, combining new interviews with the singers themselves, as well as recent and archival footage, and interviews with some of the acts they have performed with including Sting, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder.
Twenty Feet from Stardom offers a fascinating insight into the singing lives of these amazingly talented people in what is a role within music which is seemingly confined to the shadows. These are the people whose names we don’t really know, but whose voices have appeared on hundreds of notable recordings at various times over the last fifty years. Many of the predominantly women in this film have arguably more musical talent than the artists they have performed for, or at least equally so, while they would walk all over some of the pop artists who call themselves singers these days. The purity of some of the voices on display in the film beggars belief, leading me to think as to why many of them could not successfully make the walk out of the shadows and into the spotlight as a solo artist.
The sad undercurrent to these singer’s stories is that many of them had aspirations to make it as solo artists. Some of them did end up at least attempting the move from backup singer to solo artist, moves which they could not, in the end, sustain for long within the cut-throat nature of the music industry. Most of the women featured in this film ended up returning to singing backup, while one in particular Claudia Lennear ended up quitting singing all together to become a Spanish teacher. As a film, I guess it conjures up both a triumphant and heartbreaking story, triumphant in that these women had great success touring and recording with some great musicians, but equally heartbreaking in that they could not carve out their own careers as solo singers.
One of the singers whose story is featured in the film and who suffered from both triumph and heartbreak was Darlene Love, who started singing as a backup vocalist on Phil Spector produced recordings in the 1960s. She thought she had made it in 1964 when she sang lead on the Spector record “He’s a Rebel”, but Spector cut her off at the knees in deciding to release “He’s a Rebel” under the Crystals name without crediting Love. The girl group went on to tour and promote the number one hit, miming to the original recording with Love left on the sidelines to ponder what could have been. This shattered her confidence and at one stage she even quit the music industry completely during the 1970s whilst ending up cleaning houses to make ends meet. Love returned to singing in the 1980s and has subsequently had a taste of the success she richly deserved, carving her own successful solo career, whilst also continuing to sing backup for other artists. She also ended up getting recognised by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Twenty Feet from Stardom is a very intimate look into the lives of some incredible singers who soldiered on through highs and lows to forge successful careers singing backup to some of the biggest names in popular music. It is also an informative look into some of the wider issues within the music industry including issues of gender, appearance, power, and the struggle for singers to make it. This film is really quite a beautiful take on a very much overlooked area in popular music and is a must see for any music fan, those interested in singing or singers, as well as those who like a good documentary.