Pick a song from the 1960s, 70s, or 80s and chances are it has backup vocals. Chances are even more likely that those vocals belong to the select few African-American women featured in Morgan Neville’s breathtaking documentary about the art, form, and history of backup singers. Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” ushers in the film with the infamous lines “And the colored girls say/ doo, doo-doo, doo-doo…” and promptly directs attention to his marginalized subjects, front stage voices in the periphery.
One of the many delightful surprises in 20 Feet From Stardom is the sheer number of music acts to which just a select and rotating few have lent their voices. Maybe more delightful, and equally regrettable, is that these several versatile backup vocalists have gone unknown to the public outside of their diverse music clans. Many may be familiar with Darlene Love, she wails on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but what about Merry Clayton? Lisa Fischer? Relative newcomer Judith Hill? You will be by the end of this documentary, especially with their voices, because Morgan Neville is so captivated by these marginalized figures. The music flows nostalgically throughout the film but it’s almost like you hear each song with new ears, paying closer attention to the added harmonies, the “bop-shoo-bops,” and the sometimes goose-bump inducing solos.
Each talking head is accompanied by their respective resumes of bands and singers with whom they’ve collaborated. Bruce Springsteen, Dave Byrne, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Sting. The list goes on, and some of those front men offer insight about their valuable harmonizers, explaining the extreme, yet often hidden talent they possess. That talent is something apparent throughout, whether listening to Lisa Fisher’s soft, soulful jumps up the scale, or Merry Clayton’s movie stealing recollection of her Rolling Stones audition for “Gimmee Shelter” in which she belts out the infamous melody in front of an astonished Mick Jagger. Music, like any art, is often better with a back-story.
That’s what makes 20 Feet From Stardom bigger and more soulful than a collection of music videos. Its oral history of these women’s lives, from their early beginnings, musical primes, and auto-tune era departures, helps clarify the fame of their ubiquitous anonymity. They all recall their fathers being local pastors, their flare influencing legends like Ray Charles and Ike Turner, famous for their call and responses or “testifying and amening.” Backup singers’ inaugurations came with bare matching outfits and calculated dance moves, recalled in song and jest as Neville reunites former singing groups together. All too familiar to them though were their un-credited vocals on countless albums. Darlene Love became the primary victim of Phil Spector sessions, recordings featuring her group “The Blossoms” that ghosted for bands like “The Crystals,” rarely ever receiving fair acclaim. “Remember the opening of Lion King?” some of them tell the camera, “that was us too.”
By far the documentary’s deepest and existential questioning is in these singer’s desires to jump from backup to lead. “The walk to the front is difficult,” posits Springsteen near the beginning, a simple but experienced and understanding comment. The problems these women find in the spotlight stem anywhere from race to gender to the music industry. Record companies had difficulty promoting more than one Aretha Franklin, a singer many backups were capable of emulating, or even exceeding. For some, moving from “the blend” to “individuality” became less gratifying.
Others like Lisa Fischer, a lifetime backup artist, find upward mobility unnecessary to be content with their career arcs. Needless to say a declaration like that didn’t come without its trials and sacrifices, something shared by the entire overlooked and overheard sorority. Contrary to its perky tunes and chronological annotations, a somber tune sinks in with this bunch. Out of the studio, off the stage, their claims to fame lie only in memories and countless unnamed tracks. In their collaborations and unison song lie the film’s heart, a gathering of instrumental voices that mix to delicate ecstasy.
Continuing the battle between being a backup reliability and a more volatile, uncertain self-promoter is Judith Hill, a young starlet already with a wealth of musical background and experience. The film doesn’t touch on her recent oust on “The Voice,” but still dramatizes the inherent challenges of making a backstage voice a well-known name. But by the end of this lyrical journey, Neville has become these women’s best promoter, and has achieved the antithetical: giving backups the spotlight. You’ll be glad he did.
20 Feet From Stardom opens today at the Ritz Five.