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Netflix Encounter: “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013)

20 Feet from Stardom
20 Feet from Stardom

A documentary on music's great backup singers


Morgan Neville’s Oscar winning documentary "20 Feet from Stardom" is about backup singers over the years during the rock era, concentrating on the women who provided much of the heart in some noted music.

Along with great singers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Jo Lawry, many leads who hired these women (Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger) are also interviewed, along with clips from their work (audial, visual, and both).

One of the most fascinating segments features the reunited Blossoms (Love, Fanita James, Gloria Jones, Edna Wright) listening to tracks like “Monster Mash” by Bobby Pickett and “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra where they had done the background vocals, recalling “we had to sound white” This is backed up by a great clip of Perry Como from a TV appearance, flanked by white backup singers who, according to Stevie Wonder, “were good singers who had feeling, but they were committed to what was written.”

The Blossoms were among the first backup groups to transcend what was written and offer background vocals that soared, enhancing the front man (or woman) beyond the confines of what was technically composed. It is them, not The Crystals, who did the songs “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure The Boy I Love,” despite it being credited to the other group (finagling by producer Phil Spector). Darlene Love recalls her anger when seeing The Crystals (lead singer Dolores “LaLa” Brooks) on TV lip synching to her voice on those hit songs.

The stories are particularly fascinating throughout this documentary. Love’s emotional recollection of her problems with Phil Spector. Merry Clayton’s fascinating recall of doing the chilling vocals on the Rolling Stones “Gimmie Shelter” (it is she who shouts “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away…!”) along with Mick Jagger’s own memories. Claudia Leneer’s life-changing experiences working with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh. Clayton’s misgivings about doing backup on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (with its pro-George Wallace verse), deciding to do so as a form of empowerment and irony. Judith Hill’s recollection of singing through tears at her friend Michael Jackson’s funeral. Lisa Fischer, touring with the Rolling Stones since 1989, indicating she has no desire to be out front, enjoying the comparative anonymity of being a background singer. These are just some of the fascinating anecdotes.

Footage of the girls at work over the years (TV appearances and behind the scenes footage) includes such revelations as a pre-stardom Luther Vandross being among the backup vocals on David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” Sound mixers play old tracks, wiping out all the surrounding music so only their vocal sounds are heard. Darlene Love, fascinated by her own vocals on the classic “Christimas (Baby Please Come Home)” states, “I was 18 when I did that record and now I’m 70!”

The journey, the history, the footage, the interviews, and the music clips are fascinating and informative, but the conclusion, where technological overdubbing has caused the concept of background singers to fade away, is actually quite sad. It reminds us how so much of the creativity and substance are lacking in the manufactured quality of current pop music, and the lack of backup singers among the rich details of the past that are no longer being utilized. As one interviewed indicates, “there are machines that make singers sound good today.” Claudia Leneer became a Spanish teacher. Darlene Love was relegated to doing housekeeping until managing to get the annual gig doing the Christmas song on Letterman’s show each holiday and appearances in films like the “Lethal Weapon” series. In 2011 she was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame. Many cling to the memories, regretting that it had to end.

What the clear message seems to be in Neville’s film is the strength, versatility, and enormous talent of the many backup singers who enhanced so many classic pop recordings.