Finally in the spotlight
Pulling back the curtain on the background voices at the heart of some of the greatest songs in pop-music history
Morgan Neville’s richly entertaining documentary celebrates the female backup singers who made crucial contributions to classic rock music in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. As such, 20 Feet from Stardom is a kind of behind-the-scenes look at a particularly interesting aspect of the pop-music industry. But its most powerful point is that, while they were not quite in the spotlight (hence that “20 Feet”), the best of the backup singers were right at the very lively heart of some great music.
Neville makes sure that they get some spotlight time here via a combination of archival footage, performance excerpts, recent interviews with the singers themselves, and commentary from the rock stars they worked with. More than a dozen performers get the benefit of that spotlight, and several—Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear—make especially striking impressions, musically and otherwise.
Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and Sting are all on hand to offer appreciative commentary and insight, but Neville makes the best case for the backups’ artistry via performance excerpts. Rousing sequences in the early stages—The Raelettes with Ray Charles, The Ikettes in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, David Byrne bringing his assembled backups into the foreground for a live version of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People”—settle the issue, inarguably and irresistibly.
Love and Fischer are held in particular esteem by their colleagues and contemporaries, both for their extraordinary talents and the dynamic force of their respective personalities. Neville gives the two of them extra screen time, both for personal reflections on the peculiar trajectories of their separate careers and for solo demonstrations of their individual vocal gifts. Clayton, Lennear, Táta Vega, and Mable John (a former Raelette who is now a gospel-singing pastor) get similar attention, albeit less extensive.
Fischer has been featured in The Rolling Stones’ touring band since 1989, but the good Stones-related anecdotes come from Lennear (whom Jagger singles out as the best of the Ikettes) and Clayton (who delivers a delightfully rambunctious account of being called in the middle of the night to add what turned out to be an indelible touch to the Stones’ studio recording of “Gimme Shelter”). Racial and cultural issues come to the fore in Clayton’s bristling account of being called to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” And Love tells of “ghosting” the vocals for a song by The Crystals and then watching that girl group lip-synching her work on national television.
David Bowie, Luther Vandross, Phil Spector, Ray Charles, Ike Turner and Michael Jackson are also significant presences along the way, via archival footage. And Lou Reed leaves a trenchant mark by way of the vocals and an idiosyncratic twist in the lyrics for “Walk on the Wild Side,” which plays over the opening credits.