“20 Feet From Stardom” (2013)
Bruce Springsteen says at the start of this documentary film, “It’s a bit of a walk, that walk to the front is complicated.” This film is about the men and women who rarely get to make that walk to the front of the stage, but are willing to stand aside and use their talents to backup star vocals That’s what “20 Feet from Stardom” is all about – the life of a back-up singer. This film spotlights some of the greatest back-up singers of all time: Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and Claudia Lennear. You may not know their names, but I guarantee you know their voices, as these women have sung on some of the most famous songs of our time.
Many of the women (and men) that choose to be back-up singers have tried to have solo careers. Most either due to bad promotion or in some cases, the lack of desire to be in the spotlight – never quite made it. Some like Darlene Love, who toiled for years as a backup singer under legendary producer Phil Spector; even recording for him under other stars names, finally made it. Love can be found appearing on Broadway, and is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Sting are just some of the stars who were interviewed in this film, but the spotlight isn’t on them. The focus is truly on the phenomenal singers who complete the songs, making them come alive. There are amazing behind the sense stories that each person tells. My favorite is how Merry Clayton is called into the studio in the middle of the night. While in pajamas and curlers, belts out the iconic backup lines in The Rolling Stones 1969 song, “Gimme Shelter.” In one of the great scenes of this film, Merry and Mick Jagger are listening to the master tapes of the song/ They have isolated Merry’s voice as she sings “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.” It’s a remarkable scene for the audience to witness, watching them react to the magic in her voice.
Sadly some of the performers in this film are no longer singing. Claudia Lennear, who sang backup for Joe Cocker (on his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour), along with The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, is no longer in the business. In fact she is now a teacher. Other singers in the film, like Lisa Fischer, who has backed up The Rolling Stones on every tour since 1989, continue on having failed as a solo artist. Fisher even won a Grammy in 1992 for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance for her song, “How Can I Ease the Pain” but seems more comfortable in the background.
The film also highlights a young singer named, Judith Hill, who was hand-picked by Michael Jackson to be on his last tour, This is It. Hill was in extensive rehearsals with him right before he died. She is continuing to try and make it as a solo artist, even recently competed on NBC’s “The Voice.“
Each back-up singer is given some time on-screen to demonstrate their talents, which reveals the spectacular voices that each of these singers has. The passion that each singer feels for the music is evident, and gives the moviegoer an inside, soulful view.
The film never drags and has stunning footage of concerts by such artists as Sting, The Talking Heads, The Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker. There are also some amazing television footage of performances by Lynryd Skynrd, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner and David Bowie. The joy of this film is truly the music, along with getting a glimpse into the world of a back-up singer’s passion. You get to experience how hard these singers work, often in the shadows with very little recognition.
After seeing this film, you will never listen to a song the same way again.
My Rating: Full Price 20 Feet From Stardom Website
Check out Mike’s other film reviews at Last One to Leave the Theatre