I can’t remember the exact moment I became aware of the Oscar winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, but it was some time last year and I recall at the time thinking – I must see this film. For those who are unaware, 20 Feet From Stardom is a 90 minute music documentary charting the personal and professional histories of some of the unsung sheroes of the music industry – the humble background singer. The film started off as the brainchild of veteran music industry executive, the now deceased Gil Frieson, who wanted to make a film about the role of a backup singer, as he felt it was a subject worth exploring. He commissioned the director Morgan Neville to start making the film but despite Neville’s extensive musical knowledge and industry contacts, it soon became apparent that there wasn’t much information at hand to help with his research. Neville says, “As I started talking to friends who knew a lot about music, I quickly discovered that nobody knew much about backup singers. I looked for a book or even a website on the subject, but there was nothing. Who were these people? What were their stories? We began by conducting oral histories with background singers and quickly things came into focus. Here was a community, where everybody knew everybody else. One interview led to three more. By the end, we’d ended up conducting more than 50 interviews with backup singers. We learned a few things right away: Backup singers don’t self-identify as such. They are just singers. Backup singers pretty much all started in church choirs. Backup singers can sing circles around most lead singers. Just because you’re not a household name, doesn’t mean you’re not a diva. I began to listen to music differently. Suddenly, I heard backup vocals everywhere. I began collecting hundreds of songs with great backup parts.”
Trailer for 20 Feet From Stardom
The featured artists are: Darlene Love, who was part of the group The Blossoms, who emerged in the 60s and are credited as the first popular black female backup singers in America. Merry Clayton, the powerhouse vocalist and formidable life force who sang on The Rolling Stones’ seminal hit Gimme Shelter. The sweet and coquettish Claudia Lennear, who was originally part of Ike Turner’s Ikettes, before becoming The Stones’ backup singer and also rumoured love interest of Mick Jagger, and the alleged inspiration behind the classic Stones hit Brown Sugar. Judith Hill, the youngest artist featured who most will recognise as the singer who dueted with MJ on his This Is It concert rehearsal film. And last but in no way least, the sublime, ridiculously talented Lisa Fischer, who lovers of 90s R&B will remember as the ‘The Voice’ behind the monster slow jam hit Ease The Pain. In addition to the strong line-up of backup singers, 20 Feet features an incredible who’s who of musical heavyweights such as Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Sheryl Crow and Bette Midler all offering praise and insightful commentary on the important role that the backup singer plays. The film is all shades of awesome. From the opening song viewers are taken on a journey of triumphs, failure, adversity, redemption, and of course, this is all set against the backdrop of some pretty spine-tingling vocal performances. The documentary has picked up some impressive accolades since its release last year including The Independent Spirit Awards, The Critics Choice Award, and the biggie – The Academy Award for Best Documentary. Need further convincing as to why you should go see it? Read my four reasons below. (Note: there may be a few spoilers).
Black Women Speak Their Truth
Most of the singers featured in the documentary are black women in their 50s – 70s who are bold, direct and unashamedly speak their truth. From Darlene Love’s heartbreaking story of having her dreams of solo stardom crushed by the controlling and egotistical music producer Phil Spector, who signed her to his Wall of Sound label but refused to release any of her singles, and when she protested, refused to let her walk away from the deal. And then there’s the awesome Merry Clayton who doesn’t attempt to hide the disappointment she feels about a solo career that didn’t take off the way she had hoped it would. These stories are particularly interesting because in this current climate of self-made success, we’re now programmed to believe we can achieve anything with hard work, determination and tenacity. The documentary challenges this belief, and like most things in life – the truth is often more complicated. Sometimes despite your best efforts, your dreams will fall by the wayside. Sad but true. I do feel the film could’ve delved deeper into the issues of racism and sexism which in my opinion probably were at play with the likes of Clayton (let’s be honest, how many times have we heard black female backup vocalists out-sing the white/fairer skinned singers that they back?). But 20 Feet ultimately serves to remove the velvet rope, giving us the fascinating back stories of women who played a pivotal role in some of the most iconic songs produced over the last 50 years who until now have been unsung.
Obviously, There’s Some Damn Good Singing
The 50s, 6os, 70s and 80s are my favourite musical decades so I was in heaven watching some of the footage taken from TV shows and concerts from those golden eras. And don’t even get me started on the singing. I love the fact that all the women featured have their own distinctive sound. Darlene Love is extremely versatile, and can switch from real gutsy Gospel runs to a commercial pop sound in a heartbeat. Lisa Fischer is able to paint many colours with her voice: it’s really light and ethereal at times, but ferocious and powerful at other times . Merry Clayton is unrestrained, unadulterated Gospel – you can tell singing comes as effortlessly to her as breathing – love her! Judith Hill has a lovely sweet tone with bluesy undertones, it’s easy to see why MJ snatched her up. We are also introduced to other backup singers and groups like The Walters Family, who provided vocals on popular American TV shows, added sound effects on films like Avatar and The Lion King, and plus - they sang backup on Michael Jackson’s Thriller no less. Their career trajectory really made me look at backup singers differently; with more respect if you will. They are definitely the true artists of the commercial music world.
There Really is Triumph in Adversity
Darlene Love’s story truly demonstrates that there really is triumph in adversity. As previously mentioned, Darlene was caught between a rock and a hard place after her contractual obligations to Phil Spector made it impossible for her to record with another label, which meant her recording career was virtually at a standstill. Rather than drive herself to the point of insanity, she chose to simply walk away from the music business. Forced to make ends meet, Love began cleaning houses for a living and it’s only when she heard her lead vocals on the classic festive hit Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) blaring out from the radio at one of the houses she was cleaning, she took it as a sign from God that she was meant to restart her singing career. This serendipitous act led to a career resurgence, and Darlene has since starred in films like the Lethal Weapon trilogy, and sung backup for heavy hitters like Mick Jagger. We also witness this indomitable strength from her peers who didn’t buckle from the financial challenges of being in such a unpredictable industry, or the disappointment of careers that didn’t quite pan out how they envisioned. It’s definitely an inspirational watch; it’s always great to see the underdog triumph.
It’s The Antithesis of our Ego-driven Culture
Lisa Fischer’s story was one of the most fascinating to me, and I really would’ve liked to have learned more about her journey. Lisa scored a hit in 1991 with Ease The Pain, and I really imagined her career would’ve taken off after that, but then she disappeared from the spotlight. I know it’s been over 20 years since that hit single, but it was quite surprising to see her physical transformation from a svelte, sexy songstress to a modestly dressed woman who seldom wears make-up and shuns the whole ‘celebrity’ aspect of being a well-known singer.
We’re living in pretty narcissistic times where everyone’s vying for their 15 minutes, and Lisa Fischer’s determination to just sing because of the sheer joy it brings her and the spiritual sustenance it provides, was pretty refreshing to see. Through 20 Feet we learn that to be a successful backup singer you have to forgo your individuality and your ego for the greater good of providing one harmonious sound. A common sentiment that came from most of the protagonists was that they view their voices as an instrument, a gift from God, and not as as means to gain world- recognition, wealth and fame. If only our current crop of singers could adopt that way of thinking then maybe we’d return to the true artistry demonstrated on those mega hits from yesteryear.
20 Feet From Stardom is out at cinemas nationwide now.