TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM (Morgan Neville, 2013)
No one dreams of growing up to be a backup singer, but for some skilled vocalists, standing behind or to the side of the star is as close as they come to the spotlight. While TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM suggests that these supporting performers deserve greater solo success, it also contends that they should be proud of the careers they have made. Those interviewed for the documentary have contributed to some of the biggest pop and rock hits of the last fifty-plus years and toured with many of the most popular entertainers. Unlike many all-or-nothing showbiz stories, this one recognizes that it doesn’t take coming out on top to be valued in the industry and to find satisfaction in the work.
Director Morgan Neville talks to a lot of backup singers, many of them African-American women, in tracking the path of this particular kind of performer since the 1960s. None of their stories are told in full, although four are granted a little more time to link their prospects through the decades. Darlene Love, the best known of the bunch and one who eventually managed to cross over as a solo artist, speaks of her days in a session group that worked for producer Phil Spector on many of the time’s most memorable hits and the problems she encountered in trying to establish her name. Merry Clayton tells of her time working with Ray Charles and how she came to provide backing vocals on rock classics such as “Sweet Home Alabama”. Lisa Fischer released a Grammy-winning single in 1991 but has primarily worked as backup singer, most notably on tour with The Rolling Stones since 1989. Judith Hill was preparing to tour with Michael Jackson when he died and aspires to solo career.
Neville incorporates a lot of great music and draws attention to the parts of the songs where his subjects made a difference. Clayton’s isolated track from “Gimme Shelter” is still a stunner when separated from the rest of the recording. Love’s stories about unwittingly ghosting hit songs and being limited by her contract reveal the injustices in a system where these performers lacked power. These and other tales bring into greater focus the challenges of the job, but as TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM floats among the backup singers without going deeper on anyone in particular, it feels like a hodgepodge of anecdotes.
Although TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM doesn’t display a lot of range, Neville does well at pulling together the history and noting how the role of the backup singer has evolved. The film makes a good point about how technological changes are having an adverse affect on these vocalists. AutoTuning and home studio recording lead to less demand, even if such digital solutions make qualitative variations that some don’t feel improve the music. While Neville doesn’t point out the increase of featured roles in songs, those parts seem like what would have been the domain of backups but now go to stars.
No one has a quick and easy answer as to why these women have trouble going from backup to lead. It would’ve been interesting if TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM explored that question more. Nevertheless, it succeeds as a celebration of talents often unheralded by wider audiences.