‘20 Feet From Stardom’: Sing it out

June 11, 2013


It’s hard to imagine another documentary this year that will be as uplifting, entertaining and moving as Morgan Neville’s “20 Feet From Stardom.”

A sensation at this year’s Sundance festival, “20 Feet” looks at a group of people who normally don’t feel the spotlight’s heat – the backup singer. They labor behind the star, filling in the sound, enriching it, giving it heft and depth, all without any of the attention that’s focused on the headliner.

Neville covers a lot of ground in the course of his film, bringing several of the biggest name in background singing to the fore: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer and several others. He tells their stories, but also examines the benefits and pitfalls of the background role.

As Bruce Springsteen, one of the biggest names in the film, says at several points, it’s a thankless role, but one that some people are most comfortable with. While there are singers who do backup work as a way to get discovered and start a career of their own, it takes a certain combination of drive, talent and luck to make that leap to the foreground.

Singers like Clayton and Lennear talk candidly about the disappointments that came from recording solo albums that didn’t sell, relegating them to what they viewed as the obscurity of backup singing. Love, on the other hand, sang lead on several albums’ worth of songs for producer Phil Spector, only to see her contribution erased as he slapped the name of other groups on her recordings.

Then there’s Fischer, a Grammy winner on her own, in demand for sessions and concert work – yet with no drive to be a star. She lives the life she wants (in a small apartment in New Jersey), heading for the studio or the stage when Sting or the Rolling Stones or Chris Botti call and ask her to come play with them.

Love’s story may be the most poignant, recreating the moment when, having given up singing to clean houses out of frustration with what Spector had done to her career, she hears one of her songs on a radio while she’s vacuuming. It galvanizes her to go back to singing – and a cross-country move helps reignite her career.

There are many memorable moments, most notably Merry Clayton recounting how she came to add her iconic vocal to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” She sits in the recording studio where the original tracks are played – and then everything drops out of the mix except her stunning vocal track. It’s a scene that will give you chills.

Interestingly, the newbie in the core group that this film examines is Judith Hill, recently voted off “The Voice” (further proof, as though any is needed, that America may have talent, but it has no taste). Her story is similarly touching: She’d been chosen to be duet partners with Michael Jackson for his “This Is It” concerts at London’s O2 Arena that would mark his comeback in 2009; she would have been introduced to the world on that stage. But Jackson died before she got her actual chance to perform.

If you are a fan of any music before 1990, you’ll recognize the work and the sound of the women in this film. They are a seminal part of rock’n’roll history, finally given their chance to shine in “20 Feet From Stardom.” It is the musical cure for whatever ails you.

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