20 Feet From Stardom – Review by Niall Curran
Directed by Morgan Neville
Running time: 91 mins
Released at the IFI and selected cinemas from March 28th 2014
Winner of best documentary Oscar at the recent awards, this film directed by Morgan Neville shines a spotlight on the role of backing singers in popular music and how some struggle for recognition and stardom whilst others carve out successful careers as backing singers.
It features interviews with such luminaries as Brice Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting who explain that singing talent is not the only ingredient needed to be a star. It also requires a bit of luck combined with the necessary ego, narcissism and drive to be a star.
Beginning with a brief history of the role of white backing singers in popular music, it explains how they were replaced by in the early 1960s by passionate and powerful teenage African American girls such as Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. Inspired by gospel’s call and return style vocals, Love was only fifteen when she formed part of the Blossoms, a trio who provided backing vocals for Ray Charles and she went on to perform backing vocals for many legends of rock and soul music such as The Beach Boys, Tom Jones and even Elvis. But she is best known for her work with the notorious producer Phil Spector and sang one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) in 1963.
Work began to dry up as Spector’s girl group sounds fell out of favour by the end of the 1960s but English rock musicians, who were trying to sound black, filled the void leading to Merry Clayton being called late at night into the studio to sing one of the most infamous lines in rock history, “Rape! Murder, its just as shot away” from the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and she also sang on Lynrd Skynrd’s Sweet Home Alabama amongst others.
The film switches its focus to another highly regarded backing singer, Lisa Fischer, who is now considered to be one of the greatest backing vocalists in popular music. It shows how she began her career as a backing vocalist for Luther Vandross, who himself was a backing singer and is shown singing on David Bowie’s hit Young Americans, but achieved fame in her own right as lead vocalist in the late 80s and early 90s.
Reaching the modern era, the spotlight is thrust upon the backing singer Judith Hall as we follow her attempts to make the leap from the back to the front of the stage after a star performance at Micheal Jackson’s memorial service.
The film provides a fascinating insight into the role of backing singers in creating popular music and how it has evolved throughout the 60, 70s and 80s. Highly recommended for music fans but also for anyone who has tried to do something on their own.