The back-up singer is one of the un-sung heroes of the music industry. The belting of “oh’s” and “ah’s” has always been just a part of the mix. Industry insiders know how important these singers are to the process but the general public is basically ignorant to the behind-the-scenes of recording. The documentary 20 Feet From Stardom tries to right that wrong.
The film takes a three pronged approach to telling the story. Part of the film is a history, starting in the 1960s with the Blossoms and Darlene Love. Darlene was the singer on The Crystals “He’s a Rebel” even though she was never given her due on the recording. She became the voice of the Phil Spector ‘wall of sound’ that popularized AM California style music in the 1960s. She is a massive voice that was never given her due.
The second part of the documentary is interviews with major rock stars and how important background singers are to the sound. Bruce Springsteen talks about trying to get that Phil Spector sound on his records and how one of the secrets was using the background singers in a call and response. Sting discusses how central people like Tata Vega are to making his music. There are praises from such diverse artists as Chris Botti, Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger on how these artists have enhanced the sound they are trying to achieve. Better Midler gushes over the importance of her co-workers on stage.
There is archival footage of such greats as Ray Charles, Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross. Director takes this footage and focuses his editing on the girls in the back, proving the songs are much more of a give and take than a leader and followers.
The third part of the documentary shows how the women who back-up artists are still being an influence to the industry. We follow a day with such great singers as Lisa Fischer and Merry Clayton who tell story after story of their adventures being so close to the spotlight. While some of the singers have gone on to other careers, others still perform both in the studio and on stage.
Director Morgan Neville also focuses his camera on the next generation of singers and how the music industry has changed. Judith Hill is the only young singer featured in the documentary. It shows her going from doing back-up on This is it the Michael Jackson tribute documentary and her trying to break-out to the front of the stage. She was one of the contestants on The Voice and works steadily in the industry.
There are so many moments that jump from the screen. We get Ray Charles and Tina Turner on concert stage. That alone is worth the price of admission. There are different clips of The Rolling Stones singing ‘Gimme Shelter’ and talk of how the song came about. There are magical flashes throughout the film.
20 Feet From Stardom is easily the best documentary of 2013 (so far). It is rich in history and heart, showing how these performers are a vital element in all the tunes Americans have grown up on. It is a loving tribute to the simple power that is music and a documentary that should not be missed.