“Twenty Feet From Stardom” is an open-eyed look at the costs and rewards of making a living at the edge of the pop-music spotlight. Sting, Mick Jagger and Bette Midler appear, but the stars of the movie are anonymous backup performers. These articulate, sophisticated singers created some of the most electrifying moments in classic hits without receiving their due.
“Singing background remains, I suppose, a somewhat unheralded position,” Bruce Springsteen says in a tone both wry and regretful.
Until now, that is. No one who sees director Morgan Neville’s up-tempo tribute to those unsung vocalists will listen to music the same way again. “When you listen to all the wonderful hooks that people sing,” says Janice Pendarvis, who has worked with Stevie Wonder and David Bowie, “they’re singing along with us.”
After seeing the film, it’s impossible to listen to the fierce refrain on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 “Gimme Shelter” (“Rape! Murder! / It’s just a shot away / It’s just a shot away”) without saluting Merry Clayton’s breathtaking skill. It’s nice to know whose voice gave you all those goosebumps.
Beyond a voice capable of angelic highs and devilish lows, a singularly unpretentious attitude appears to be essential for a career as a backup singer. The star needs to hit his glorious notes only once, but the chorus must be pitch-perfect on each and every take. The singers interviewed here, almost all black women, grew up singing in church choirs and take a pure pleasure in harmony. For them, creating beautiful melodies is its own reward.
Lisa Fischer won a 1992 Grammy for her R&B love song “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but the vagaries and demands of solo stardom were such that she returned to the fold. The stunning Claudia Lennear — who inspired the Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” set the stage on fire with Ike and Tina Turner and toured with Joe Cocker — gave up music to teach Spanish. Not everyone is lucky enough to achieve, or interested in pursuing, fortune and fame.
In some cases, sheer injustice halted a brilliant talent’s progress. Darlene Love, a legend in the music business, sang on a remarkable number of hits in the 1960s but who knew? That’s her on “It’s in His Kiss,” Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and the novelty hit “Monster Mash” (she was asked to “sing white” on that one). A featured voice in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, she was denied credit and a chunk of royalties for her work until she sued the mercurial producer. Love wound up cleaning houses in Beverly Hills before reviving her career in the 1980s. In 2011, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As Midler said in introducing her, “About time, too.”
Neville, the director of documentaries on Stax Records and Hank Williams, is delivering more than a cleanly constructed history lesson here. His primary interest isn’t just the narrative, it’s how his subjects think and what they feel. When he frames them chorusing around a microphone, their beautiful faces relaxed as they settle into the music, their elation is tangible. A wonderful, out-of-nowhere shot offers a vivid image for the singers’ shared energy. For a few seconds, Neville cuts to a panorama of birds spiraling and looping together in flight with an almost mystical blend of freedom and purpose.
The film is crammed with blow-you-out-of-your-shoes concert footage from Elvis Presley, Luther Vandross and Talking Heads, among many. “My greatest pleasure is to stand back and let them do what they can do,” says Sting.
Neville’s film, the culmination of his crusade to bring attention to some of pop culture’s most talented and least egocentric artists, encourages us to listen with that same awe and appreciation. When the backup A-Team unites for a closing song, the thematically perfect “Lean on Me,” it’s a thing of contagious joy.