Twenty Feet From Stardom 

Sundance doc puts backup singers up front

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Gil Friesen, former president of A&M Records, was at a Leonard Cohen performance several years ago. Having smoked a joint prior—“The most expensive joint I’d ever smoked”—he was lost in the music. He began to wonder, and not about Cohen’s erudite or hedonist lyrics, but about his back-up singers. What goes on in their world?

Friesen, executive producer of Twenty Feet From Stardom, didn’t know. Award-winning director Morgan Neville didn’t know. No one knew anything—there are no books, no movies, nothing, about back-up singers. So began a two-year odyssey into this invisible subculture.

As research and preliminary interviews began for Twenty Feet From Stardom, the angle was obvious, yet surprising: African-American voices coming out of the church, bringing that aesthetic to pop music, and the contrasting takes on becoming a star. Also, themes of race and gender equality came up naturally. Four lead characters, each from a different era of pop music, take us through a crash course in rock history—but from the other side of the lens.

First, we meet Darlene Love, whose three-piece The Blossoms put back-up singing on the map. The first black background singers, The Blossoms sang on more Top 40 hits than any session group in history—from Sam Cooke to Elvis, Frank Sinatra to James Brown. They were so successful because music needed “back-up singers free enough to put feeling into what they were singing,” Stevie Wonder says.

That “feeling” is almost unanimously called “The Blend.” “[It] is the Holy Grail of back-up singing. ‘The Blend’ becomes this quasi-religious place where people completely lose themselves in a single harmonic voice,” says Neville by phone.

“At one point, I said to myself, ‘I’m making a film about addicts,” he continues. “The industry is tough, and they’ve all had their asses kicked. And yet they come back to it because it’s addictive. It’s that state of harmonic beatitude.”

Next, we meet Lisa Fischer, who now tours with the Rolling Stones, Sting and Chris Botti, launched a career as a solo artist and even won a Grammy, but turned down success to continue to sing back-up. “I think that’s something to be celebrated,” Neville says, adding that Fischer is the story’s heroine. “Our societal bias is that everyone wants to or should be famous.”

Merry Clayton is another singer who attempted the leap to center stage. “I wanted to sing as myself to the masses,” she says. Clayton worked with producer Lou Adler on three gospel-tinged soul albums, à la Aretha Franklin, but they “just didn’t take,” says Clayton in a misty-eyed interview. Twenty Feet From Stardom also profiles Judith Hill, the film’s most contemporary singer, who is in the midst of her ascent to stardom as a lead lady.

Beyond history lessons, archival footage and an all-star cast of interview subjects—Bruce Springsteen, Sting, etc.—what makes Twenty Feet From Stardom so alluring are the telling stories. For instance, Clayton and Mick Jagger decant the midnight recording session of “Gimme Shelter”—maybe the best moment in back-up singing, ever. It makes you look at music in a new light.

“I listen to songs differently now. Throughout the whole process of making the film—you know, there are no lists of great back-up-singer songs—it was a couple of years with the radio on and a song would come on, and the light would go on,” Neville says. “I’d keep lists of hundreds of songs. I had to retrain my ear.”

Throughout the documentary, validation is given to the singers, these talented musicians performing in the half-light of stardom, who match the lead singer’s sound, tone, timbre—and sometimes even hit the notes that the lead singer can’t. Many harmonizers and doo-woppers are even better than the leads they back-up, but they wouldn’t say it, because it’s all about “The Blend.”

“The ones that really succeed as back-up singers are the most selfless people you’ve ever met and are really willing to support somebody,” Neville says. “It’s soulful caregiving.”

Director: Morgan Neville
Starring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill
Documentary Premieres, 89 min.

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