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)
Interesting documentary about unheralded singing stars
This documentary is another in a recent cycle that looks at those from the music industry who have been neglected in some way. In 'A Band Called Death' we learn about an innovative proto-punk band who never even got a chance to record an album and were only rediscovered over 35 years after recording their demo tapes, in 'Anvil: the Story of Anvil' we follow a band who have maintained a very mediocre level of success over a very long time and in' Searching for Sugarman' we are given the incredible story about a musician who released a couple of records that no one bought and who vanished without a trace for quarter of a century. The angle that '20 Feet from Stardom' is coming from is very similar but with a twist – this is the story of neglected musicians who are in actual fact the voices of the sounds that have been in ours heads our whole lives.
It centres on a selection of classy African American female backup singers who recorded vocal accompaniments for a series of stars from the 60's to the present day. While they were essentially voices for hire, often it was their vocals that made the songs so good – listen to David Bowie's 'Young Americans' and tell me that it's the backing vocals that aren't the best part. But the story has a sadness, as these incredible singers rarely got beyond the backup part of the act. Sometimes they tried and their career stalled. This was because being a successful solo artist requires so many variables such as songs, charisma and determination. While it also needs the marketing powers of the record label. All these ingredients are not necessarily a given for someone with a beautiful voice. However, in some cases actual exploitation seems to have occurred as in the case of Darlene Love, who was used by producer Phil Spector as the voice that the girl group The Crystals claimed as their own but even more unforgivably, Spector got Love to record a track promising it was going to go out under her name only to surreptitiously give it to The Crystals again.
The film uses a talking heads format, with contributions from a variety of stars that used backup singers such as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Sting. There is also priceless archive footage of the likes of Ray Charles and, best of all, Ike and Tina Turner. Sometimes we even get to deconstruct a famous song to hone in on the backup vocals, such as in the case of the track 'Gimme Shelter' which is very possibly the best song the Rolling Stones ever recorded. We hear the backup vocal in all its isolated glory and it becomes very obvious that without it, this song would simply be nowhere near as powerful. So, let's hear it for those unheralded women who have filled our heads with such beautiful sounds all these years. This is their moment of recognition and they deserve it.
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