Summertime is traditionally regarded as the proper season for cinematic junk food, not the good-for-you granola of documentaries. But go see the doc that everyone has been talking about since Sundance: Twenty Feet from Stardom. It’s every bit as awesome as it’s cracked up to be.
The brainchild of producer Gil Friesen, longtime president of A & M Records, and lovingly and skillfully directed by Morgan Neville, Twenty Feet from Stardom is the extraordinary inside story of what it means to be a backup singer in the American music business. Combining amazing archival footage with new interviews with many of the singers themselves, as well as the stars whom they back up and other industry insiders, it’s a heartfelt, truly moving appreciation of these undervalued, underpaid, sometimes-invisible women – mostly African American – whose voices created the unforgettable soundtracks of our coming-of-age.
Briskly paced and engrossing, Twenty Feet from Stardom is loosely structured around a timeline that begins in the “girl group” era, when the Crystals were getting the credit for tracks that one of the film’s principals, Darlene Love, had actually recorded with the Blossoms. The narrative is informed by glimpses of the historical and cultural substrate that underlay the period, including lingering traces of racial segregation in the entertainment industry and the deep motherlode of the gospel music tradition in the black churches where so many of these women learned not only to sing well and expressively, but also to sing as part of a group.
The story continues through rock’s Golden Age, when several of the women profiled were making their mark as members of the Raelettes and the Ikettes or backing up white male bands on megahits from “Gimme Shelter” to “Sweet Home Alabama.” It follows our unsung singing heroines through heartbreaking efforts to carve out solo careers during a time period when increased reliance on high-tech recording and voice-processing techniques has severely reduced the demand for real live backup singers. It finally brings them into the present, where each pieces together her own answer to the question that Neville identifies as his core theme: “When you don’t achieve all of your dreams, how do you make peace with the life that you have, rather than the life you dreamed of having?”
Threads of hardship run through the professional lives of these brilliantly talented women, and each one has confronted her share of unlucky timing, lack of public appreciation and sometimes outright discrimination. Some have tales to tell of the bad old days when they were abused, forced to dress like hookers onstage or had the fruits of their labors co-opted by male headliners or industry executives (not surprisingly, Phil Spector and Ike Turner come off as the biggest jerks in this tale). But we also hear from a number of male stars – Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting among them – who seem eager to praise the talent and the contributions of their backup singers, giving them equal verbal credit for the success of their recordings, even if they don’t share the take-home pay quite so generously.
And it’s clear, as we hear veterans like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Táta Vega, Mabel John and the Waters Family talk about their lives in show business, that they were in it for the love of their art – not for the spotlight that mostly eluded them. Some of them left the business for a while when times got lean: Love was cleaning people’s houses for years before she got back into performing and ended up elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while Lennear has been working as a Spanish teacher for over a decade. A couple feel that they’re too old and only sing in church nowadays. Some never left, working their way to a serene acceptance that they’ll never be big-name stars. One younger singer, Judith Hill, is still clinging to the hope of a solo career, after the bottom dropped out of her anticipated big break when Michael Jackson died just as she was about to go on tour with him.
But put several of these women together in a room today and, without any rehearsing at all, they immediately start scatting and harmonizing, falling into their parts as naturally as if they’d never missed a beat. They seem to form an instinctive sisterhood, radiating mutual respect and support (and in seemingly unanimous agreement that Fischer owns the most unearthly voice on the planet). The music is what binds them, what moves them.
For all the challenges that these women have faced, Twenty Feet from Stardom is not one of those music-business exposés that’s all about inspiring public outrage over great artists who got shafted by the system. We feel for them, and we think it a shame that their names are not better-known, their pockets not better-lined. But the movie is more a meditation on the less flashy rewards of being part of a team that does extraordinarily good – and important – work outside the limelight. Maybe that’s why we can relate to the “stars” of this film: They’re real people like us, taking life as it comes and learning to relish the small daily rewards inherent in simply doing what we do, as well as we can.
Oh, and did I mention that this movie is chock-full of fabulous music? Do I even need to? You’ll walk out of it with a full heart, perhaps a teary eye – and likely an urge to break out in song on the way home.