“20 Feet From Stardom” documents the work and life of some of the most iconic pop culture figures you’ve never heard of. They’re the voices of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Tina and Ike Turner’s Ikettes. They’re the unheralded backup singers all throughout rock history.
Morgan Neville’s film is insightful because it does more than give a few people a platform to shine; it delves into the complicated nuances of this job, this industry and the effect it has on these individuals’ lives.
Neville is the producer behind such rock docs as “Pearl Jam Twenty” and “Johnny Cash’s America,” and he uses that clout to gain access to such rock royalty as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder. Bruce explains at the film’s opening that the walk from the back of that stage to the front is a complicated one, and some of the best in the biz have flown under the radar not for lack of trying.
To be a backup singer, the job involves conforming to the sound, the voice and the need of the song. It inherently rejects individual expression such that you can be part of an ensemble.
So imagine the dilemma of someone who has entered into this business. For Darlene Love, she got steady jobs under Phil Spector but was frustrated to learn that her in-studio vocals were being dubbed and lip-synced by The Crystals, another black girl group that hit it big. Love eventually signed with Spector officially, but the business is cruel, and he pulled the same trick with subsequent solo work.
Judith Hill is a more contemporary artist struggling through the indie singer songwriter scene today. One time she took a job singing backup behind a pop star on “The Tonight Show,” donning a wig and fake lashes just for a few bucks, and fans still called her out on Twitter for being a sellout.
Tata Vega has a voice like Aretha Franklin, but then there can only be one Aretha Franklin. That was the mentality in that day and age of the recording industry, and Vega’s solo records faded from memory as a result.
And lastly, Lisa Fischer is one of the more humble singers you’ll ever meet, but her demeanor is not typically the egotistical A-personality that gets people noticed in the record industry. Fischer is one of the most well-known names around the biz, but we see glimpses of her going to a FedEx and cleaning people’s houses.
“20 Feet From Stardom” reminds me of the millennial dilemma many of my friends and I are going through. Each of these women is in a transitional phase, all of them gifted and going on something of a spiritual journey, but unable to make any real headway due to outside conditions.
It’s a shame for these women, because the way in which they just describe music is achingly beautiful. Neville shows a real love for the act of music making as much as he does invest in the art history. First there are the typical shots of Fischer rummaging through her dirty apartment filled with rock history curios and Grammy awards. Then there’s the priceless expression of Mick Jagger saying, “Bloody hell, that’s good,” as he hears Love belt out the hook to “Gimme Shelter.” But we also get moments in which they equate their act of music making with their heritage in a church choir or with their families.
The obvious companion piece to “20 Feet From Stardom,” which could very well win this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary, is last year’s winner, “Searching for Sugar Man.” That film also plucked an unheralded music legend from obscurity and gave him a chance to shine.
But “20 Feet From Stardom” isn’t a rags to riches story. Love is already in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and the rest are getting steady work. They’ll remain unsung (no pun intended) heroes and continue to shine in the background. Rather, this is an American story of finding personal strength, identity and success through music. It’s a relatable one for anyone who has ever stood just out of the spotlight.
3 ½ stars