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Movie Review: '20 Feet from Stardom' proof background singers live on edge

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"20 Feet from Stardom" film

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When "The Voice" results broke in Season 4 that three of Adam Levine's strongest singers (Judith Hill, Sarah Simmons, Amber Carrington) were in the bottom selections, some viewers were confused. Carrington was saved, and the votes came in that both Simmons and Hill would be going home. Some fans chose to protest the results by not watching the rest of the season. Others were so adamant that a strong singer wouldn't be sent home again and adamantly voted in the additional rounds. But chances were high that all 62,000 of Judith Hill's current Twitter followers were stunned she was sent packing.

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However, while watching the film "20 Feet from Stardom," viewers learn quickly that strong singers regularly deal with this type of rejection. And like any artist, they have to make the decision about whether they'll keep fighting to get to the top as a solo artist, stick to background singing where it's safe or go in a completely different path.

In a "Times Talks" bonus 24-minute interview from The New York Times' reporter Jon Pareles, filmmaker Morgan Neville confirms that there were 50 interviews done to compile what would become the final movie. In a 1 hour 31 minute movie, that many background singers isn't realistic, but the documentary from Gil Friesen Productions and Tremolo Productions added enough celebrities and talented background singers to make their point.

Interviewees included Mick Jagger, Sting, Lou Adler, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Austin, Gloria Jones, Stevie Wonder and footage of a young Tina Turner, as well as footage of the late Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson and Ike Turner.

Background singers included Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love from The Blossoms, Tata Vega, Claudia "Brown Sugar" Lennear and "The Voice" own Judith Hill.

Outside of small coverage of background singer Jo Lawry, the film focuses on African-American background singers and their fascinating ride from the background to the front of the stage and sometimes off the stage and out the door. Playboy covers. Spanish teachers. Board games and movies with Sammy Davis Jr. Snickering about who did and did not date some of the artists. Being cherry picked by The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Sting, Luther Vandross, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and more. A Grammy. A 2011 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame award.

While the life may seem glamorous, one artist admitted that had she reached the heights of fame, she probably wouldn't have been alive to enjoy it because she'd have OD'd somewhere. Other artists seemed frustrated about the way background singers were chosen as eye candy, sex appeal and dancing instead of focusing on their voices.

Singers reflected on the choices they made to continue their careers in spite of missed opportunities, racial conflict and working with ineffective promotional teams. And still others just wondered about basic decisions many career women make, such as family.

"Sometimes when I, you know, talk to my friends who have children and who are married, I think to myself maybe I should've gotten married and had some kids," said Grammy-winning artist Lisa Fischer in the film. "That king of thing but . . . I'm good. I'm so good."

So good that she's been singing as the lead female vocalist for The Rolling Stones since 1989.

While other artists may have made different choices and tried to raise a family while being on the road, there was often that question in the back of their minds about whether they should continue playing the safe route as a background singer.

Stevie Wonder, who has hired Hill as a background singer before, said, "As much as you're enjoying this, don't let your dreams disappear because you want to be with me or around me. You've got to step out there. Do your thing."

While Hill fans are waiting patiently for her next goal, positive stories like Darlene Love of The Blossoms starting her solo career at 40 and winning a 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame award is proof that there's always time.

The Waters (a background singing group composed of Oren, Maxine and Julia Waters) achieved success with projects like the "Growing Pains" sitcom intro, "The Lion King" movie soundtrack and odd jobs like creating bird noises for the film "Avatar."

Background singers pointed out that many well-known artists are choosing to eliminate live music with additional singers to save money or the same artists end up using their own family members instead of hiring out. But The Waters are prime examples of how to get odd jobs in the meantime, as well as Love admitting she went from background singing to being a maid to singing and making small movie appearances in films, such as "Lethal Weapon."

And after the upset on the voice, "20 Feet from Stardom" still leaves viewers hanging about what Hill will do. First she wouldn't take background jobs (after Michael Jackson's death in 2009 and "This Is It" movie released) because she doesn't want to get stuck in that "background singer" category. Then she would take background jobs for artists but tried to disguise her thick, fluffy hair with straight-haired wigs. Didn't work. Fans know their favorites. She was outed immediately. Hill finally explained that an artist's expenses require money, and background singing pays her bills so can fans blame her for playing the background every now and then?

The film doesn't end with one back happy ending or sad ending. Just multiple endings for artists who went down separate paths. Some won. Others bowed out gracefully. But not one artist in the entire film seemed to regret showing off their undeniable vocal talent.

Recommended Reading:

"20 Feet from Stardom" website

Judith Hill website

"The Voice" Judith Hill gallery

"Times Talks" NY Times (partial) interview, bonus footage from "20 Feet from Stardom"

Shamontiel is also The Wire Examiner, and for the gladiators, she's the Scandal Examiner, too.

Follow Shamontiel on Pinterest for all of her latest TV, book, music and movie reviews; photo galleries; entertainment saving tips and other entries, or subscribe to her National African American Entertainment channel at the top of this page. Also, follow her @BlackHealthNews, and follow this Pinterest board to read her celebrity interviews.

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