Film Review: Twenty Feet from Stardom

Highly entertaining and revealing look at backup singers and their essential contributions to pop music.

As anyone who’s frequented a lot of cabaret or live theatre performances can tell you, there are many unknown singers out there with phenomenal voices. Stardom is a whole other matter, incorporating elements of charisma, creativity, luck and career savvy. (We’re thinking of you, Madonna.)

The aptly named documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom celebrates many of the best “unsung” talents, the invaluable backup singers whose contributions to classic pop recordings are indispensable but often taken for granted. Morgan Neville’s film is a wonderful corrective to that oversight, a fast-paced and entertaining tour through several decades of pop-music history that will leave you not only smiling but much more appreciative of the dynamic talents profiled here and all those other unknowns who energize great recordings.

Several of the women Neville spotlights (and the film’s subjects are nearly all female) came very close to achieving stardom, and one in particular did re-emerge to belated acclaim that put her in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That would be Darlene Love, the best-known of the movie’s subjects. Love began her career as a member of the trio The Blossoms, who backed such stars as Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra and Dionne Warwick. Then she became one of the primary talents on the early ’60s classics produced by Phil Spector, doing both background vocals and lead vocals on such hits as “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” most often uncredited and sometime even attributed to a different group in the Spector stable, The Crystals. Control freak Spector never let her emerge as a full-fledged star, and her career sunk so low she retired from show business and worked as a housekeeper. But today, at the age of 71, Love is a highly regarded and still-active performer, familiar to fans of David Letterman’s show for her annual appearances singing the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

Another absolutely indelible artist in Twenty Feet from Stardom is Merry Clayton, whose place in rock history is cemented by her searing performance of the “Rape! Murder!” chorus on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (recorded at two in the morning, no less). Like fellow big-voiced performers Lisa Fischer and Tata Vega seen and heard here, Clayton seemed to have all the resources for major stardom, except for that elusive hit record or brilliant career guidance. Fischer actually did have a brief heyday, winning a Grammy for a solo album; since 1989, she’s been a backup performer on Rolling Stones tours, singing—what else?—“Gimme Shelter.”

The new generation is chiefly represented here by Judith Hill, whose gig as a featured singer on Michael Jackson’s hoped-for “This Is It” tour ended with the superstar’s shocking death. Hill did get some major exposure at Jackson’s memorial service, and until recently was considered a front-runner on the music-competition show “The Voice” until her puzzling elimination. The gifted Hill, reportedly on the verge of a record deal, may yet emerge a star.

Neville has recorded insightful appreciations of the backup community from big stars they’ve supported, including Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger. Sting ruefully laments that the fame game is “not a level playing field,” but salutes the “spiritual component” that some backup singers seem to find reward enough. Indeed, Fischer rhapsodizes about the special shared experience that blending voices affords her tribe of dedicated artists. Stardom is ephemeral; these singers’ contributions are the real thing.