Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we've had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.
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The backup singer exists in a strange place in the pop music world; they are always in the shadow of the feature artists even when they are in front of them in concert while they provide a vital foundation for the music. Through interviews with veterans and concert footage, the history of these predominately African-American singers is explored through the rock era. Furthermore, special focus is given to special stand outs who endeavored to make a living in the art burdened with a low profile and more personal career frustrations, especially those who faced the very different challenge of singing in the spotlight themselves. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
There are some people who toil anonymously in the music business: session musicians, recording engineers, producers and so on. And then there are the backup singers. Many of those, probably most dream of being out front, becoming a star, and gaining worldwide fame, applause, respect.
For most, it doesn't happen. Once in a while somebody breaks through: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Barry Manilow, Sheryl Crowe, Phil Collins. More often, it's a day job, and they are called for sessions, sing their part and go home. Sometimes they will be a permanent part of the act, like the Raylettes with Ray Charles, but they don't get the big rewards the upfront star does.
Such is the story of "20 Feet From Stardom", where we meet a half dozen or more who have had a career in the back light, occasionally getting the break to record their own album, and then ... nothing. Darlene Love was the voice of the Crystals, except Phil Spector kept slapping somebody else's name on her recordings and she got nothing. (She ended up cleaning houses for a living. But two years ago, in much belated recognition, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.) Merry Clayton is another; she's the haunting female lead on the Stones "Gimme Shelter", but as a solo artist she just never took off.
It's a well constructed film, and if a bit indulgent here or there, it's just a matter of choice in the editing booth, not a failure of the director to deliver.
If you have any interest in the music industry, or have ever thought of a career as a singer, this is a great lesson on the realities of that business. (This would also apply to acting, where "That Guy" did a similar riff on that equally competitive business.
Of course it's worth noting that while there are lots of people "20 Feet from Stardom", there are legions more who never even get that close, and who wind up singing in saloons, street corners, and even subway stops. It's a tough world out there. "20 Feet From Stardom" picks a point closer to the pinnacle, but not quite, and that's what makes it interesting.
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