Backup singers do just that, back up the biggest and most influential performers on the planet, but they very rarely get acknowledged publicly for their work. 20 Feet From Stardom brings these singers into the spotlight, and allows them to tell their stories for the first time.
They say that behind every good man there is a great woman, and surely the same must be said for musicians and the artists who back them up. Many of the singers profiled in this documentary – including Judith Hill, Merry Clayton and Darlene Love – have sung for most of their lives, having come up through the gospel music scene. These artists have sung with everyone from Leonard Cohen and Sonny and Cher to the Rolling Stones and Ray Charles and, while many of them do not wish to step forward and claim the spotlight, they often struggled to make a living from their work.
20 Feet From Stardom is a heartbreaking but uplifting look at the world of supporting singers, singers who could easily have strong careers in their own right but, as the movie goes on, we learn the struggles and issues that stood in their way. Not only is the film engaging on an emotional level, but it also is filled with nostalgia for the great songs from the past. The soundtrack is littered with familiar songs and, as we learn more about the people providing the rich tapestry of voices to some of our favourite songs, they somehow manage to take on a deeper emotional meaning.
The film does not only focus on the singers from the past, however; Judith Hill is a singer who was working on Michael Jackson’s ill-fated This is It tour, who then struggled to find a place for herself in the aftermath of the singer’s death. To hear this, as well as stories of women who heard records they had recorded credited to someone else, as well as the triumphs when they finally stood on stage with the Rolling Stones or were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes Morgan Neville’s film a rich and emotionally rewarding one.
As well as telling these incredible stories, Neville attempts to address the question of why many backing singers never desire the fame that could be so easily theirs, what emerges is the story of people with strong talent who are care more about creating great music than taking the praise for the same.
20 Feet From Stardom is a rich, warm, engaging and fascinating film that attempts to tip the balance of recognition in the favour of background singers. Great music and great stories about, making this a documentary that hits an incredibly high note.