20 Feet From Stardom
Documentary filmmakers love to tell the story of the unsung hero, and there is no bigger unsung hero in the history of rock ‘n’ roll than the backup singer. 20 Feet from Stardom, the now 2nd consecutive music documentary to win an Academy Award following last year’s Searching for Sugar Man win, is a triumphant film documenting the history of backup singing (specifically gospel-rooted backup singing that has been prominent in rock music since its inception) and the triumphs and heartbreaks of some of the most prominent backup singers in rock history.
20 Feet from Stardom starts with the very first black backup singing group, the Blossoms which featured Darlene Love, and the important role the group played in some of rock’s earliest hits. It also covers a few of the songs that the Blossoms actually sung like “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” that Phil Spector ended up releasing under a different group like the Crystals that would lip sync the songs. The most prominent figure in the film is Darlene Love, the Queen of modern backup singing, and her triumphs and struggles throughout her career, with her struggles being most related to Phil Spector’s complete mistreatment of her musical career. While the film shows the missteps and misfortunes of backup singers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer, the film portrays these women as strong, beautiful, and ultimately content with their calling.
Beyond Darlene Love, the film walks through the lives of important backup singers like Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, and Tata Vega and their important backup parts in songs in rock history. Thus, we get a lot of amazing vintage footage of Ray Charles, David Bowie (doing “Young Americans” with Luther Vandross singing backup), Joe Cocker, and Ike and Tina Turner. The film specifically points to white British rock singers like Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, and David Bowie understanding the strength and soul of backup singers and using them to tremendous success. Though there are plenty of big stars in this documentary like Sting, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen, director Morgan Neville makes it 100% known that the backup singers are the real star of this film.
The best moment of the film in my mind is Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger recalling the night they recorded “Gimme Shelter” with Mick Jagger being brought to tears when remembering Merry Clayton’s soulful performance. This was specifically an amazing and rare side of the usually unflappable Jagger to see, and great to experience arguably the best backup singing performance of all-time through a new lens.
The film ultimately loops back around to modern day , covering Judith Hill, a rising star backup singer who sung with Michael Jackson on his last tour, who is hoping to break to center stage. Through Judith Hill’s story, the film talks about the difficulty many backup singers face when it comes to breaking out, as the ability to break out requires ego, self-promotion, and business acumen, skills not given to or valued by these backup singers. Having grown up in the church and in the world of gospel call-and-response, it’s hard for many of these singers to step outside the group dynamic, and many just lack the ambition to use their incredible talent for self-gain.
So for those that love backup singing, rock history, or just a good tale of the unsung hero, 20 Feet from Stardom is a real triumph. Not only is it worth your time, but it’s on Netflix, meaning it’s easy to get a hold of, and a great way to spend 90 minutes.
For more great music documentaries, check out our recent Top Ten of our favorite rock docs.