Morgan Neville’s documentary ‘Twenty Feet from Stardom’ looks at the lives of backup singers spanning from the 60’s to present day. These artists are gifted with powerful voices brimming with talent. but rarely recognized. The frank account regarding the lives of these individuals seeks to give credit where it is long overdue.
‘Twenty Feet from Stardom’ is a documentary but it is also an indictment of the music business. It’s hard to reach stardom when there’s someone standing in front of you with their foot on your neck.
Backup singers often have the deck stacked against them as they struggle to rise to the top. Endowed with a beautiful singing instrument, some have endured tremendous obstacles to achieving their individual greatness.
It also ponders what is that ‘it factor’ that makes a star. Is it several factors that align to elevate the backup singer to stardom? Or is it just the right place at the right time, with the right people in the business supporting you? For example, Sheryl Crow and Luther Vandross began their careers as backup singers, yet they were able to walk the distance to center stage.
We all know people who couldn’t sing their way out of a paper bag and we wonder how did they become a star? Like any marketable creation it ultimately takes a willing consumer and product recognition to sustain a career.
Rarely do backup singers become lead singers even though they have immense talent. Quite frankly, the deck is stacked against artist in a proverbial ‘Catch 22.’ Specifically, leads singers need backup singers to make them great and backup singers need lead singers on their journey to being great.
Music icons such as The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen appear in the film and discuss the fact that they need these singers to help deliver their songs. Some even go so far as to say they don’t know where they would be in their careers without them.
The film looks at the careers of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer whose voices we recognize, but their faces are not associated with fame. It also examines the personal choices each had to make in order to survive in the business.
By all accounts Love who is an African American should be a mega star (she has the Grammies to prove it). Her voice is heard on many legendary recordings. But, since the industry chose to have another singer’s face (a white one) on the album cover, her achievements are mostly unrecognized.
In contrast, the award-winning Lisa Fischer with an amazing voice still sings with The Rolling Stones. But, she shies away from stardom. She has no desire to sell her gift in the seedy world of the music business for fame.
Nevertheless, newcomers such as Judith Hill work diligently to hone their craft into fame. She is a talented young artist who despite her powerful voice she stills remains behind the lead singer.
Neville’s account of the lives of backup singers is informative and inspiring. After viewing this film, it will be hard to ignore the greatness in the back of the room.