Director Morgan Neville’s documentary ’20 Feet from Stardom’ is a revelation as it examines the unsung heroines of the music industry – the backup singers. This film is definitely a must-see for music lovers but what makes it resonate so powerfully is the lengths artists will go to pursue their dreams. One of the themes is how being a gifted singer is not always a one-way ticket to fame and fortune. In many cases, it’s a combination of luck, ego and a record label’s marketing machine to turn some musicians into big stars while other more-talented singers remain in the shadows. We get to know these divas, most of them African-American women, through their personal stories of triumph and heartbreak in the entertainment industry.
As Bruce Springsteen mentions from the get-go, “The walk to the front is complicated.” He sure isn’t kidding. The stories of the singers’ careers are told through interviews and archival footage of their performances. Some of the biggest stars in the industry such as Sting, Stevie Wonder and Bette Midler attest to their talents. It really sinks in when the camera turns to Mick Jagger. You’ll never hear the Rolling Stone’s song, “Gimme Shelter” the same way again. Merry Clayton’s vocals of “rape, murder – it’s just a shot away” are haunting. She reminiscences about how she was summoned from her home late at night, picked up in a limo to record the legendary song while pregnant, curlers in her hair, wearing a mink coat and silk pajamas. When they play back an isolated recording of her voice, it powerfully shows off her range. They also play it back to Jagger and he is still blown away by it. It’s fun to listen to their separate accounts of that magical night together at the recording studio.
The documentary is filled with wonderful anecdotes from other singers too. One common link they all have is Gospel music and using the church as their training ground. It’s hard to imagine Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” without the “colored girls” singing those haunting “do-de-dos” or David Bowie’s “Young Americans” without those memorable background vocals. The movie finds its core with Darlene Love’s compelling story. Her studio work in the ‘60s ignited other musicians using church music’s call-and-response as a foundation of rock and soul. It’s heartwrenching as she talks about her music contract with producer Phil Spector and how he marginalized her talents by releasing her material under different artists. He literally prevented her from being a star. She was so frustrated that she walked away from her music career and became a housekeeper to put food on the table for her family. Fortunately, her story has a silver lining. In 2011, Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a speech by Bette Midler.
Another moving profile is when the film focuses on Lisa Fischer’s story. She talks about getting her start as a backup singer for the late Luther Vandross (who also got his start as a backup singer for David Bowie). She is best known for her 1991 hit song “How Can I Ease the Pain” which won her a Grammy award and a record deal. Although her solo career never took off, she has had a stellar career as a backup singer. When you hear her sing, her vocal range is incredible. One of her achievements is being an integral part of every Rolling Stones’ tour since 1989. In an interview, Sting professes, “She’s a star.” Fischer’s perspective on fame is insightful in our celebrity-obsessed culture. She never wanted to be famous. For her, it is a spiritual awakening to have the privilege of singing her heart out on stage. She is an extraordinary talent.
’20 Feet from Stardom’ is nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award. You’ll appreciate the hard-work and dedication these women have practiced following their dreams. Put ’20 Feet from Stardom’ in your Netflix queue and get inspired for whatever stage you’re striving for in life. http://twentyfeetfromstardom.com/. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/tWyUJcA8Zfo.