20 Feet from Stardom – The Unsung Talent of Backup Singers
Morgan Neville’s Academy Award winning documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013) is a tuneful and a thoughtful tribute to the perseverance of backup singers. It is not just a documentary for those who like music; it’s for everyone who has a sociological interest in the culture of star or celebrity. Morgan Neville takes a section of female back-up singers, who although immensely talented reap little fame or glory in the public.
The opening credits show us the iconic album covers, where the faces of the star-performers are blotted out, in order to focus on the anonymous women or men gathered around microphones in the background. It points out that the backup singing in pop music was revolutionized, when the producers brought African-American backup performers, whom energized the tune with their soulful, spine tingling voices. The entire narrative is finely shaped with interviews, concert clips, and recording sessions, which all illustrate the artistry of back-up singers from the rock n roll age to the digital age.
Neville first covers the 1950’s when Darlene Love and her African-American backup singers group, ‘Blossoms’, lend new energetic voices, which became staples on recordings by everyone from Frank Sinatra to James Brown. Through Love, Neville demonstrates how the gospel choruses became a defining element in popular music (starting from the late 50’s). Despite appearing on too many records, Love, in her middle age wound up cleaning houses in middle, but later staged a hard-won comeback in the 1980s. Three years back, Love was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The documentary also introduces other series of great vocalists like Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, the Waters Family (provided the vocals for ‘The Lion King’ and Avatar) and Lisa Fischer (won a Grammy in 1992 for her first single). Through contemporary interviews, Neville brings them together, spotlighting the sense of sorority that has kept them close through all ups and downs.
The documentary also spends time in profiling Judith Hill, one of the younger generation back-up singers (she lends a contemporary perspective). Hill rehearsed with Michael Jackson in his last aborted tour. She says backup singing can quickly transform into “quicksand”, when they take the risk to own a spotlight. She continues her diva dreams, while many of her talented counterparts have left that thought out.
Celebrity interviewees include Mick Jagger , Sting, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen. These high-profile celebrities offer expert insights about the role and the importance of backup singers. Some even salute the backup singers for spiritually raising the rock and pop music. They also raise a crucial question: Is it important for an artist to be a star?
“20 Feet from Stardom” (90 minutes) is an entertaining and inspirational documentary that teaches us to take pride in our passion or work regardless of its reward. It is an untold, but a very significant story about showbiz.