In the wake of the passing of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, 20 Feet from Stardom will resonate more than ever. The mainly female backup singers featured in 20 Feet From Stardom are all daughters of preachers, as was Aretha Franklin, who fine-tuned their extraordinary singing voices in the church choir while very, very young. Director Morgan Neville connects Gospel, Blues, and Soul to these roots of Rock and Roll.
You may not recognize the names or faces of Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton, but you will surely recognize their unforgettable voices. Love has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fischer still works as a backup singer, touring with Chris Botti, Sting and The Rolling Stones. However, the heart-stopping climax of the film belongs to Merry Clayton, as we are treated to her mind-blowing performance on the single “Gimme Shelter”. Hearing her raw voice blast out “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away” is gut-wrenching.
Twenty Feet from Stardom creates a visual and auditory record of these great soul singers and in the memory of Aretha Franklin, the time to watch this documentary is now. This film is groundbreaking, with the archival footage of performances we have heard but not witnessed. It is a joy to understand the sacrifices that creatives make for the love of their art, even if their dreams are not fulfilled. 20 Feet From Stardom is a documentary about a secret that needs to be told. And unfortunately, the backup singer is rendered even less significant as music employs advanced recording and sound technology to emulate the gifted backup singer’s voice.
While we see personal frustration, regret, and betrayal we also witness a passion for music and a personal need to share their vocal gift with others. Most importantly perhaps, we understand the underappreciated gift their voices have brought to the music world. Some of the stars truly recognize the valuable and indispensable contribution these backup singers gave to their success. Interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Lou Adler, Chris Botti, and Mick Jagger underscore the music-composing elements these virtuoso singers created . We also see Luther Vandross as a back-up singer to David Bowie and Sheryl Crow, who worked as Michael Jackson’s back-up/lead female. These are the examples of the back-ups who became well known later on. But 20 Feet from Stardom is focused upon those whose dreams did not come true.
My only criticism of 20 Feet from Stardom is structural. The first part of the film repeats the performances and sacrifices of the backup singer’s role. Each of the individual stories is very similar. So each singer’s personal story did not have to be told in such detail that it slows the film almost to a grinding halt.
But be patient. The poignant, fascinating sociological study of the cost of pursuing fame instead of excellence is eye-opening and well worth waiting for the personal reflection on the price of success. This would be a great evening’s watch along side Muscle Shoals —see my July 19, 2015 review and Searching for Sugarman. Even the fictional Birdman ties into the main theme: neglecting the efforts of the team who supports and holds up the main attraction.
Note: Available to stream on Netflix.