If nothing else, the vocal talent showcased in “20 Feet From Stardom,” a documentary about backup singers, affords the viewer/listener with a 90-minute Auto-Tune-free zone. For fans of the musical instrument that is the unaltered human voice, it’s a rare treat.
But it’s not just that. The film is also an engaging look at the nexus of art and commerce, talent and hard work. It’s a story of standing out and blending in, sometimes at the same time.
Several musical superstars are interviewed throughout the film, by Morgan Neville, a producer and director of music documentaries. Still, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder and others do more talking here than performing. Oddly, Bette Midler is practically the only woman of their stature to be interviewed by the director, which may say more about the music industry’s sexism than Neville’s.
That reading is suggested by another statistic. All of the background singers who are profiled in depth in the film – and who are the movie’s real stars – are women: Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love and Tata Vega. Of them, Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Famer Love, who started out as a member of the backing group the Blossoms, is arguably the most famous. Despite her 1963 hit, the Phil Spector-produced solo “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” even she didn’t pursue a serious solo career until she was in her 40s.
The distance alluded to in the title, which is taken from a comment made by Springsteen near the beginning of the film, is both literal and metaphorical. The journey from anonymous edge of the stage to the spotlight, he says, “can be a pretty long walk.”
Other than Love, most of the background singers in the film never made it to center stage, despite their best efforts and, in some cases, despite industry acclaim. Fischer at one point shows off her 1992 Grammy for “How Can I Ease the Pain.”
It’s certainly not because they can’t sing. Clayton’s backing vocals on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 “Gimme Shelter,” which include the line “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away,” are an indelible memory to anyone who’s ever heard the song. Even if you know it well, it’s great to hear that vocal track again here, isolated from Jagger’s singing. Clayton’s voice, all by itself, will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
That’s what background singers are supposed to do, without upstaging the star. They bring sex appeal and, in some cases, a dash of personality to a song. They also bring the hook, since that’s typically when their voices join in. As one commentator notes, whenever you sing along with the radio, you’re probably singing along with the background vocalist.
It’s also noted that many background singers brought race into the musical mix, when it was needed commercially. Who better than a black female vocalist to help make a blue-eyed soul singer sound a little less white? All of the six featured singers in “20 Feet” are women of color.
So why have they had such a hard time making it? Lennear worked for many years as a Spanish teacher; Love cleaned houses, even as she was singing. Remarkably, no one in the film is a complainer.
“Who knows?” says Sting, who chalks the mystery of success up to such unquantifiables as luck, destiny and, perhaps most tellingly, the magic of the right material.
Of the artists featured in the film, Hill, a regular background singer for Wonder and a former contestant on “The Voice” television show, is the youngest. At 29, she’s only beginning that “pretty long walk.” Because of her beautiful voice, I wish her luck. Based on the career trajectories of the older women who came before her, she may need more than that.