The title of the wonderful documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” can be taken literally. Morgan Neville’s film is about a cross section of female backup singers who, though uniformly glorious, reap little glory with the public. Their pipes are in many cases every bit as startling and powerful as the headliners they back, so the question the film asks is, Why aren’t these women – among them, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Claudia Lennear, and Judith Hill – stars in their own right?
The answers are complicated and variable. For an artist like Lisa Fischer, who won a Grammy in 1992 for her first single, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” the hothouse of stardom simply didn’t fit who she was. Of all the women interviewed in the film, she seems most comfortable with being a backup singer – for the late Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Alicia Keys, The Rolling Stones, Chaka Khan, and many others.
Her situation is very different from that of the legendary Darlene Love, who was a staple in Phil Spector’s stable – you can hear her loud and clear on “Da Doo Ron Ron” – before, according to her, he helped sabotage her solo career. (She sang the lead, uncredited, on the hit “He’s A Rebel,” by The Crystals.) For years she worked as a cleaning lady before resuming her career in the 1980s.
Then there’s Merry Clayton, now 64, who indelibly screams out “rape, murder – it’s just a shot away” in the infernal Rolling Stones anthem “Gimme Shelter.” And the mesmerizing Judith Hill, at 29 the youngest of the singers profiled, who sang at Michael Jackson’s funeral (she was supposed to accompany his final tour) and was recently voted off NBC’s “The Voice” singing competition in what is surely one of the more boneheaded decisions in TV history.
This is one music documentary that isn’t simply a glorified concert film, though there are plenty of performances to savor. Neville has made many first-rate music documentaries (most recently “Troubadours”) and the late A&M Records executive Gil Friesen acted as the producer, which surely contributed to the film’s savviness. (Full disclosure: I worked with Neville in the late 1990s on two episodes for A&E’s “Biography” – on Sidney Poitier and the Hustons – when he was starting out.)
Aside from being a signal contribution to the field of musical performance on film, as well as a tribute to singers who deserve a prime place in history, “20 Feet From Stardom,” which includes encomiums from Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, and Sting, also raises a larger cultural issue. How important is it for an artist to be a star?
This is not an idle question at a time when there are so many pseudostars among us, and when stardom itself is the goal for so many in show business. The artistic authenticity of these women needs no defense – except that, of course, alas, it does.
And yet, however sad or resigned many of these singers might feel about what might have been, none of those feelings come through when they are onstage. I have rarely seen a movie that better expressed the revivifying nature of music. (Many of the women, not surprisingly, grew up singing gospel in church choirs and had preachers for parents.)
I had the great pleasure when I saw this film at Sundance of having lunch with the ladies, and I can tell you, it felt like a jamboree. Many of them have known each other for years and their togetherness had a spiritedness that was a performance all by itself. They were so happy with the film that they rarely went more than a few minutes without singing about something, anything – even if it was the menu choices.
It’s the same joy that comes through, despite all the rue and hardship, in “20 Feet From Stardom.” Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material.)