Ever want to know more about the people who sing backup vocals on your favorite hit songs? No? Well to be quite honest, neither did I. Or so I thought. That’s the beauty of this documentary. 20 Feet From Stardom takes a subject of vague interest and makes it captivating. On display are the contributors that rarely get mentioned, save for the microscopic print of the liner notes on an album. It’s a fascinating watch. 20 Feet From Stardom doesn’t purport to tell the story of all supplementary vocalists. What it does do is delve into a sampling of the prolific talent that has been harmonizing on songs you’ve loved for years but never knew who sang those secondary parts.
I suppose in some way this presentation speaks for all backup singers as it tells these stories, but it specifically recounts the detailed histories of Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega. Every tale is unique with a distinct take and their own remarkable window into the world of popular music. The rationale for why these performers never became household names are multilayered and vary. For some perhaps racism and/or sexism. In others maybe just dumb luck. A simple lack of a desire to seize the spotlight is even suggested. In the case of Darlene Love, there was the megalomaniacal (albeit gifted) Phil Spector to contend with. Only one ego in the room please. Her drama is especially heartbreaking in the sense she sang on some of the most beloved songs without nary a credit. She along with Fanita James and Jean King, were founding members of The Blossoms. The trio sang backup on Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and countless others. They notably recorded the #1 hit song “He’s a Rebel” but Spector released that single under The Crystals, a completely different group, so Love and her fellow Blossoms never got the recognition or the stardom they deserved. Yet Love’s story inspires happiness nonetheless. They became first call, A-list session singers, highly in demand. Their voices are still infectious today. They are permitted to sing here and their talent speaks volumes that words cannot.
I always instinctively assume that the background vocals belong to the group/entourage associated with the artist on the single. But in many instances they are hired guns that come in, lay down their vocal tracks and then move on to the next gig. Director Morgan Neville’s document gently suggests various reasons for their lack of fame but allows the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. In the meantime we’re treated to some of the best music of the 20th century. These vocalists have worked with the likes of Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Sting, Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler. Many of these legends appear singing the praises of these unheralded talents. By and large, the chronicle is an uplifting tribute. There’s something exhilarating in seeing these artists get their due. It’s amazing how pervasive their contributions are to pop culture. For example the Waters Family were featured on “Thriller”, “The Circle of Life” and even recorded dino-bird sounds for Avatar. There are at least half a dozen sagas here that command your attention. Each performer could highlight their own movie. Perhaps none more so than that of Darlene Love. Her story is one of frustration, perseverance and ultimately joy. That’s the ultimate message of this wonderful film.