20 Feet From Stardom is a really good film. It’s a beautifully shot, well crafted, and adroitly structured documentary. And it features a group of truly remarkable African-American women who did much of the legwork creating the backing vocals for the likes of David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and much of the rest of pop and rock music since the 50s.
There’s Merry Clayton, who got a call from the studio in the middle of the night, and went in her curlers and silk pajamas to record the backing vocals for the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter.” There’s Lisa Fischer, who spent over a decade as the lead female vocalist on all the Stones’ tours, and who’s wordless jazz stylings are so beautifully haunting and physically astounding that 20 Feet From Stardom literally drops everything it’s doing for five minutes to just watch her perform. And then there’s Darlene Love, the closest thing the film has to a center of gravity, who recorded at Phil Spector’s studio, played Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon series, wound up cleaning houses for a time, and now at the age of seventy has been inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and closes out the film’s credits singing with Bruce Springsteen.
The story starts in the 50s, when the arrival of rock n’ roll called for a new sound the traditional, buttoned-down, and, yes, very white female backup singers couldn’t provide. The daughters of African-American preachers raised in the gospel tradition stepped into the breach.
This is one of the many parts where Darlene Love shines. Working with a small number of other performers, she was a regular fixture at the recording sessions in Spector’s studio, helping set the sounds and aesthetics of the era. She even managed to record an album of her own, which Spector promptly repackaged and sold under the auspices of a different band he considered more marketable. Decades later, beneath Love’s decency and verve, you can tell the injustice still stings.
20 Feet From Stardom is full of fascinating little detours like that. It doesn’t just investigate a little-appreciated part of the creation of American and British pop music, it uses the stories of these women as windows into the evolution and conundrums and social upheavals of the last half century. There’s a remarkable passage when one of the singers gets recruited to provide backing vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and decided to take the gig as a kind of protest hijacking from the inside of Skynyrd’s southern confederate nostalgia. Believe me, you’ll never listen to the song the same way again.
The most moving aspect of the documentary is the subtle way it interrogates our ideas about success, opportunity, and talent. By all accounts, these women are just as capable – if not more so — as the stars they support. Yet as the title suggests, they all remained just short of the final pedestal. Some of them tried and failed, and some of them never wanted it in the first place. Springsteen, who elevates any material he’s in, contributes a short meditation on the distinct mix of ambition, vision, and narcissism needed to make that “final walk” to the front. And Sting straight up acknowledges it’s more a question of luck and random chance than anything.
Technology is also in the mix: as Pro Tools and home studios have proliferated – breaking the hold of the studio session as the creative fulcrum of the music industry – the role of the backup singer is dying out. The youngest subject in the documentary is Judith Hill, who sang back-up for Michael Jackson, and is now attempting that last leap to stardom in her own right. But the movie’s tone ultimately winds up more wistful than hopeful or forward-looking.
20 Feet From Stardom lovingly curates one of the little-known corners of our recent history, one that nonetheless played a vital role in some of our most cherished cultural accomplishments. Its characters are vibrant, its interviews are penetrating, its cinematography is gorgeous to look at, its editing is well structured, and it never gets boring. Go see it. Your life will be better for it.