What would a concert sound like without backup singers? How would our favorite songs sound like without backup singers? Standing 20 feet from musical legends like Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Elton John, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting, these singers’ voices have helped shape the sound of pop music throughout the decades. Most likely, we all know their voices, but until Morgan Neville’s Academy-Award winning documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, we just didn’t know their names. And we should.
Who can forget the haunting, piercing female vocals that sing the refrain of the Rolling Stones’ hit song, “Gimme Shelter” (released in 1969): “Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.” That is the voice of Merry Clayton. During the holidays, everyone loves to play or listen to “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (released in 1963) considered one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stones Magazine. That is the voice of Darlene Love. And as David Letterman has observed, it just isn’t Christmas without Darlene Love. Since 1986, Darlene Love has performed her classic Christmas hit each year on Letterman’s nightly talk show.
Of course, no one grows up saying “I want to be a backup singer” — especially in the age of American Idol and The Voice.” Everybody wants to be a star, basking in the glorified spotlight — not hidden in the shadows. But stardom is extremely elusive. In one segment, rock legend Sting candidly admits that luck plays a greater role in stardom than talent and hard work. Every one of the backup singers profiled in this film — including Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tat Vega, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Julia Waters, Maxine Waters, Oren Waters, and Judith Hill — had or have the talent to be successful recording artists, but didn’t get that lucky break they needed to really succeed. Some of the testimonials and stories are absolutely heartbreaking. A tearful Merry Clayton confesses to the camera “I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”
Much like Jason Connell’s fascinating documentary, Strictly Background, is a tribute to the unsung heroes of film — the background actors — Twenty Feet from Stardom, is a heartfelt tribute to the unsung heroes (pun unintended) of the music industry — the background singers. Phil Gallo of Billboard magazine praises the film: “[The film is] an emotional loop de loop, a picture that elicits gasps of disbelief, spontaneous applause, and tears. The power of Neville’s work is such that it transcends the typical music documentary.” The talent, dedication, perseverance, and pride that these gifted background singers possess is absolutely inspiring. After watching the film, one can truly appreciate that these individuals were able to discover their gifts early and they dedicated their lives to sharing these gifts with the world — even though they would not be standing in the spotlight. But now they can take derive some level of satisfaction that now we know their names.
For further reading: twentyfeetfromstardom.com