Director: Morgan Neville
Gil Friesen Productions
The real magic in 20 Feet From Stardom is that no one thought to tell this story before; it’s documentary gold: the helpers, the people behind the stars, the ones doing the work and making the stars sound good – 20 Feet From Stardom shares the stories of some of the best-known/under-appreciated backing singers across rock and pop music. Women with backgrounds in jazz and gospel, soul and blues who turned to pop and rock and were well paid, in a session-sense, but never got the chance to shine.
Not only that, their work as background artists, as backing singers, overshadowed their attempts to make it as solo stars, as breakout singers.
Music fans will know the names Merry Clayton and Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer too (most recently as The Rolling Stones’ backing singer mainstay, recreating Clayton’s original searing efforts from Gimme Shelter). But even if you don’t know these names you know the voices. And there’s a lot of heart in this story, in their stories.
Love was so crucial to the Phil Spector sound and then there she is cleaning houses to make bank.
Then there’s Lisa Fischer, to hear her tale is almost to see a homily play out, but she has craved the anonymity of being a backing singer, of hiding inside the song, shaping music from all and any genres without having to get her tits out, wear the dress that Mick Jagger yanks at nightly.
The film looks at the role of the background artist, or backing singer. The teams of small choirs that were called in to make hits for studios and the changes to that structure, the fall of the label/studio model means small/no budgets, means session guns for hire are no longer on immediate speed-dial.
So the film is just a snapshot in the end, a handful of stories – it ignores several genres and you get the feeling Sting’s daughter is in there as a trade-off for having Sting as one of the big-name talking heads (alongside Jagger and Bruce Springsteen). But it’s charming. And you’ll leave this film with at least one new favourite singer you either hadn’t heard of before or hadn’t realised was your all-time favourite, in that you knew the voice but never had a face and name to match up with it.
Perhaps 20 Feet From Stardom is the start of a dialogue, perhaps it would be nice to have another volume or two, another set of stories to follow on, but it’s a great film – both heartbreaking and feel-good and there’s a lot of strong music and some very proud characters.