Name one song that you love to sing along with the backup singers on. For me, I have two: The Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”. And can you name any of the backup singers on your song? I can’t on mine.*
That’s what 20 FEET FROM STARDOM is all about – the unsung heroes, if you will, of the music business. The backup singers are the people who give your favourite song that transformative sound. Think of the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”. The backup singer’s wailing of “It’s just a shot away/It’s just a shot away” makes this song one of rock’s most memorable refrains. The song may not have been so haunting if Mick had sung it solo.
That’s Lisa Fischer, by the way, who is also featured in this film.
Director Morgan Neville is no stranger to making music documentaries having already turned his camera lens on a diverse range of musicians from Hank Williams to Pearl Jam. Along the way he picked up a bag of awards including the big one – a Best Documentary – Features Oscar® for this film. And it is well deserved. 20 FEET shines the spotlight on a wonderfully gifted group of singers who, for various reasons, have remained in the shadows for most of their long careers.
The most notable of these is the grand diva of them all, Darlene Love, who was the lead singer on many of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” recordings back in the 1960s. Her story is one of opportunities denied to her due to racism and sexism, yet she remains proud of her achievements. (For every Darlene there are a dozen others whose names we don’t know.)
The film is generously peppered with talking headshots of Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Mick Jagger, all of whom know very well what being centre stage is like and how it feels to be 20 feet behind. Even Love admits that you have to have a huge amount of ego to be a solo artist, which is why many backup singers decide to stay in the shadows. As Springsteen says, “The walk to the front is complicated.” Another backup singer, Táta Vega, is quite philosophical about her choice. She says that had she pursued a solo career, she’d be dead by now due to a drug overdose. Judith Hill, a young backup singer who is trying to take that walk today knows what she is up against, yet she says that remaining as a backup singer “can easily become quicksand if that’s not what you want to do.”
While this film is a worthy tribute to these woman (and backup singers are mostly women), there is also some discussion about the future of this career. With the advent of home studios, it is very easy for today’s artists to either do the backup vocals themselves or to get their friends and families involved and then tweak their voices using digital technology. Watching these scenes, we can’t help but wonder if we’re looking at a dying breed. Certainly, Darlene Love and her colleagues are one of a kind. It’s nice that they are finally given their moment to shine.
* I did a bit of research on my two songs. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the PSBs usually do their own backup vocals. On this song, however, there are quite a few studio people (both men and women) singing backup. I have no idea who they are. George Harrison and Bobby Whitlock sang backup on George’s song.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 38:15.)