‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ Film Review

Morgan Neville’s new film is the top contender for next year’s Academy Awards in the documentary category. Dedicated to the art of backup singing, the film is a Must See.

Making the rounds of festival cinemas is the film destined to win the next Academy Award for best documentary. Following in the footsteps of last year’s winner, Searching for Sugarman, this film, entitled Twenty Feet From Stardom is dedicated to lesser-known but brilliant musicianship, this time to the art of backup singing in popular music, specifically the rock and roll and pop masterpieces of the last fifty years. The singers are still living, and many of them are still plying their art, standing twenty feet from the superstars they support. As this film by Morgan Neville points out, making the transition from backup to lead vocal is a tough gig, no matter how talented one might be.

How familiar are these names to you? – Darlene Love, Edna Wright, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, The Waters Family? Well, in the music biz for decades these people were in high demand to sing on some of the greatest albums ever made: those from the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Ike and Tina Turner, and numerous others too countless to mention.

Darlene Love sang on numerous Phil Spector productions, sometimes under her own name, sometimes under others. She sang lead on The Crystals immortal song ‘He’s A Rebel’ and on one of their follow-up tunes ‘He’s Sure The Boy I Love’. With fellow singers known as The Blossoms, she sang on dozens of other hits for other artists. She sang ‘Chapel of Love’ before the Dixie Cups did. Her first credited single was the unforgettable ‘Today I Met The Boy I’m Going To Marry’. Her eighteen-year-old voice? – a powerhouse of soul, youth and radio-friendly dynamics. In the film she reunites with Blossoms members Fanita James and Jean King and they vocalise enough to let us know they’ve all still got it.

Merry Clayton did the original vocal behind The Rolling Stones classic ‘Gimme Shelter”. It was she who belted out those shocking lines “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away”. Her retelling of being summoned in the middle of the night to record behind “The Rolling somethings or others” is one of the highlights of the film.

Claudia Lennear worked with Stephen Stills and Joe Cocker (she was one of his original Shelter People). Claudia became so close to The Rolling Stones that Mick wrote a song about her, called ‘Brown Sugar’. When Jagger is interviewed in the film about Claudia, he is over the top about her singing talent, her beauty and their very obvious friendship.

“Morgan did a great job of weaving the stories together. We all have traveled the same road just at different times. I think the motivation of each one of those rock singers who employed singers such as myself, Merry, Lisa, and others was to give their music some kind of sweetening, to give it that kind of gospel flavor, or a ‘blackness’. “– Claudia Lennear

Lisa Fischer, with the voice of an angel and the capability of singing scat, jazz, operatic flourishes, bel canto lines, or gutsy rock and roll, has been the lead backup on every Rolling Stones tour since 1989.

Judith Hill, who worked closely with Michael Jackson, continues her struggle for an independent career, and is having moderate success despite her widely acknowledged gifts.

Bruce Springsteen says it best in the film, speaking about the challenges a backup singer has in being hired for anything but:

“It’s a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is…complicated. It’s a conceptual leap.”

Merry, Claudia and Lisa all longed for their own shot at stardom, even going so far as to put out solo albums of their own, but for one reason or another, whether that be lack of strong material or label support, they sank back into their former roles as backup. Darlene Love at one point a few years ago was working as a cleaning lady. All that changed when she heard her own voice on the radio during a housecleaning stint, and decided to return to New York and resume her career. In 2001 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Neville film captures some exciting archival footage of many of these singers as well as contemporary interviews with the likes of Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger on the role these singers played in their recordings. It’s an exciting, heart-breaking and thrilling portrait of why some of your favourite songs sounded as good as they did. These singers brought soul and talent to their craft, and for the most part went unrecognized. Until now.