Streaming now on Netflix is the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. The Morgan Neville-directed film takes an in-depth look at the legion of women who assumed the role of backup singers in the late motown and soul era, as well as helping shape the British invasion.
The movie centers around a small group of women who you've heard hundreds of times without ever knowing their names. The central subjects of the documentary are Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton, with appearances by Táta Vega and Claudia Lennear. The film also features many iconic faces such as Stevie Wonder, Sting, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Sheryl Crow, and Bruce Springsteen.
Neville captures these women as they transition from performing for audiences in the tens of thousands, to living lives hidden away from the spotlight. Some of these women have chosen to embrace these drastic shifts, while others resent the fact they haven't obtained superstardom themselves, yet each of these women has a unique perspective on the role and responsibilities of the backup singer.
20 Feet From Stardom Trailer
The film begins with the musical journey of Darlene Love. Considered by many to be "the one who made it," Love was the only background singer of the bunch to pursue a successful solo career, and in 2011 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She tells her tale of beginning as a background singer and the abuse she suffered at the hands of legendary Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector. This mistreatment ultimately led to her plunge into a career of cleaning houses, before she experienced a Christmastime revelation that fueled her re-entry into the game. She embarked on a solo career at the age of forty, and while her story ultimately ended in a world of success, the same was not true of her contemporaries.
Merry Clayton, the powerhouse voice you've heard on dozens of classic rock records ranging from Joe Cocker to Lynyrd Skynyrd, wasn't able to achieve the same level of success. She had the spunk, the bite, and even what Love referred to as the "kill attitude," but despite leaving audiences to standing ovations, Clayton was not able to get the traction required to sustain a successful solo career. As a background singer, she became legendary singing the lines "Rape, murder / it's just a shot away, just a shot away," over The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Clayton and Mick's voices slither among each other like two snakes in a sand pit, tearing down the wall that has traditionally separated frontman and backup singer. The iconic vocal line was later performed with another one of 20 Feet From Stardom's singers.
Lisa Fischer is a unique case when compared to the other vocalists in the film's cast. She won a Grammy in 1991 for her single "How Can I Ease The Pain" off of her debut album, So Intense, yet remains a nearly unheard of name today. She's introduced in the film to the sound of an iPhone ringtone waking her up in a hotel bedroom. She's dressed casually throughout and portrays an educated level of sophistication when speaking. She brings the cameras into her home and shows us artifacts such as gold records and various awards she's picked up over the course of her three-decade-long career. Chris Botti and Sting question why she hasn't ascended into the gold-lined halls of megafame. Fischer herself reveals that it's simply not a path she wished to pursue.
She tells us how she enjoys being able to disappear into a crowd after a show, as well as the difficulties that come with being a solo artist. No longer are you attempting to please someone else, you now have to choose and fulfill your own musical ambitions. Fischer speaks of her love of music as her primary interest, with very little knowledge of how the industry works. While her solo career stagnated, she's still pursued a worthwhile backup career singing Clayton's infamous "Gimme Shelter" line alongside the Rolling Stones on their tours since 1989.
The film's final focus is on Judith Hill, the singer who came to fruition during Michael Jackson's 2009 This Is It. After his death, she performed "Heal The World" at the Jackson memorial concert and her brief rise to fame was chronicled in 20 Feet From Stardom. Currently embarking on a solo career, she has deemed background singing to be inferior to performing her own material. Unlike Love who has made it, Clayton who hasn't, and Fischer who has chosen not to, Hill's future remains uncertain. She's only thirty years old -- ten years younger than Love was when she pursued a solo career -- and has plenty of ambition to run on. She has an urge to focus exclusively on a solo career, but to fund her massive aspirations, she's taken on more and more backup gigs for acts such as Stevie Wonder and Elton John.
These women comprise the voices heard on hundreds of records. They have stood and sang at the sides of various artists that have entered and exited the spotlight. They're each stars in their own respect, and 20 Feet From Stardom does an excellent job of illuminating them, what they do, and their contributions to music.
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