If you are old enough to remember the 60s and 70s — or even if you just love great singing — you’re going to love “20 Feet from Stardom.” Director and co-producer Morgan Neville has fashioned a chronicle and tribute to the mostly African-American, mostly female backup singers who stood (and danced) about that distance from such famous singers as Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting. (Simply to list these stars gives some idea of the impact of their stage companions.)
Neville conducted interviews with most of the noted names above, then integrated them with interviews of the singers themselves, now older and reflecting on their checkered careers. Nostalgia buffs like yours truly will likely enjoy their reflections on times past, as well as the archival footage of them in concert or in the studio. Such memorable moments as Lisa Fischer’s accompanying (and outdoing) Jagger on “Gimme Shelter” appear here, along with Fischer’s recollection of being awakened in the middle of the night and being rushed to the studio in curlers and pajamas for the initial recording session with the Stones. Jagger’s own parallel memories, intercut with concert footage, neatly exemplify the filmmakers’ deft film editing, which renders coherent a complex artistic/sociological narrative.
The contemporary or casual music fan may not immediately recognize names like Darlene Love, Mabel John, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, or the Waters Family. But anyone familiar with the classic rock era will instantly know their music when they hear it. Indeed, the movie points out that, when we hear these oldies, we may be singing along with the backup singers, rather than the lead singer.
It also spends some time reflecting on why they did not cross that crucial distance to the front of the stage, their careers cut short, their solo efforts somehow just not making it big. All of the backups reflect on the hard times that inevitably went along with the good ones. There’s a remarkable lack of bitterness throughout, an acceptance of the sad truth that talent in the music industry is no guarantee of success. (A prominent exception: producer Phil Spector’s unscrupulous, unforgiveable ruining of Love’s promising career, eventually obliging her to eke out a living by cleaning houses — and hearing her own songs on the radio as she did so.)
The church background of so many of the singers, its crucial — if not exactly classical! — role in their vocal training, also emphasizes and documents the importance of gospel in the roots of rock. Listen to the call and response dialogues between Ray Charles and the Rayettes on “What’d I Say,” Stevie Wonder says, then try to imagine the song without them; you can’t. Or consider what Joe Cocker’s career would have looked like without his getting more than a little help from his friends.
Perhaps the most poignant, wise summation comes from Sting, reflecting on how the success of, say, an American Idol who hasn’t earned his or her spiritual stripes will be “wafer thin.” Put another way, as one of the backups does, you have to have gone through some “woodshedding” to get it, to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues. Sadly, the harsh reality of the dues these talented, powerful musicians have paid comes through repeatedly.
Towards the film’s end, Neville considers the budding career of younger backup singer Judith Hill, who finds herself caught in something of the same bind as her predecessors as she tries to go solo. While Hill struggles to get out on her own, she freely admits to her love of making music with others, as we see her do in backing up Darlene Love — a nice filmic coda. But hers is the exception, especially as music producers are increasingly resorting to electronically “tuning” the accompanying singers after the fact, instead of paying for the human vocal talent upfront.
Rated “PG-13” for some mild profanity and sexual content, “20 Feet from Stardom” is one of the few films I’ve seen this year (or any other) that I wanted to be longer than its hour and a half running time. You may have to search a bit to find it, as the release is limited, or wait for the DVD to come out. In either case, it’s worth the time and effort.