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.
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)
Midway through Morgan Neville's riveting new documentary about the world of backup singers, Twenty Feet from Stardom, music legend Sting comments that the most important factors needed for success, more so than talent, are luck and timing. That sage comment is the crux of this thoroughly entertaining film.
We meet a series of talented vocalists, mostly unknowns who contributed to many hit recordings of the past (songs like Gimme Shelter, Walk on the Wild Side, Young Americans, What'd I Say, and Sweet Home Alabama). We learn about their journey for fame and fortune and its high cost. Many edge their way toward the spotlight only to somehow lose sight of that elusive goal. Twenty Feet from Stardom honestly tells their life stories. Most end unhappily, some are more fortunate. All are thoroughly engrossing studies of blind ambition (or in some cases, the lack thereof) and the singer's personal need to share their vocal gift with others.
These background singers are a remarkable bunch of gifted performers, many of which go unrecognized by the general public, including myself. Names like Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, the Waters Family, Claudia Lennear, Mabel John, Stevvi Alexander, Jo Lawry, and Tata Vega are bantered about. We witness these gifted women and their incredible high- reaching vocal range. This documentary gives the moviegoer a front row seat. It's must-see viewing.
Their individual journeys are fascinating and varied. We learn that some of these session singers leave the music industry to start other careers while others still languish in the music business waiting for their next gig. One singer ends up posing for Playboy while another finds a religious calling. One even wins a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Artist for her debut album, only to find that her fame evaporate until her next recording. Probably the best known of these talents is Darlene Love who tells her tragic tale of the Svengali-like Phil Spector and his malicious control over her career. (Love poignantly admits that watching other performers lip-syncing to her voice and losing her musical identity in the process became too much for her to handle. We then actually see the footage of that act in question.)
Sometimes the film overstates its message and becomes a bit redundant. But the filmmakers have culled extraordinary performances, both then and now. Neville builds his story with rare archival footage of these singers in performances from the sixties to present day and he masterfully incorporates strong imagery throughout the many interviews with established stars like Bruce Springstein, Stevie Wonder, Patti Austin, Chris Botti, Bette Midler, Mike Jagger, and the aforementioned Sting. These stars truly appreciate the genuine talent of these women and the musical contributions they bought to their mega-recordings.
Twenty Feet from Stardom creates a visual and auditory record of these great soul singers and may help them one day gain the recognition they deserve. Let's hope filmmaker Neville doesn't need luck and timing on his side either until his next film. He is a real talent to watch and his film is a joy to be heard. (I will eagerly wait for the soundtrack.) GRADE: B+
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