“Twenty Feet from Stardom”: The Important Backup Role

I’ve always loved backup singers. But I’ve never before had the chance to appreciate them the way director Morgan Neville‘s documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom (“Millions know their voices, but no one knows their names”) allows us to.

What does it feel like to be the backup singers to the headliners? The “unsung” singers? For that matter, what’s it feel like to be anyone whose role in work or life is to be in the background while helping someone else? Aren’t most of us “backup singers” in some way?

In large part because of the nature of the backups being “twenty feet from stardom” this film, as described on its website, is “(t)riumphant and heartbreaking in equal measure…both a tribute to the unsung voices who brought shape and style to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others.”

The Globe and Mail: “The best behind-the-music documentary since Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Twenty Feet from Stardom introduces us to a series of extraordinary vocalists like Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer (winner of a Grammy in 1992 as a solo artist) who, for various reasons of chance, character and social barriers, did not become the next Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston.”

Some backup singers do desire more spotlight, others are fine with the position they’re in. The amazingly talented Fischer, for example, has experienced and appreciated being a star in her own right (in the early 1990’s). However, she also enjoys her current and ongoing backup role; she likes how she fits with others on stage. Moreover, she doesn’t really need anything different than this. Connie Schultz, Parade: “Fischer says she hopes audiences find a message for themselves in the documentary. ‘I’d love to see this movie make people love themselves in this right-now moment,’ she tells me.”

On the other hand, Judith Hill, a recent contestant on TV’s The Voice, is currently making an all-out attempt to develop her solo career and leave backup singing pretty much behind. Four other more seasoned performers—Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Táta Vega, and Claudia Lennear—have also aspired to and had their own individual projects, to varying degrees of success.

For me, watching Twenty Feet from Stardom was like being at a very special concert, even though we’re not treated to songs in their entirety. These singers’ ability to shine is definitely not the issue. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, in fact, Neville praises backup singers as being better than most of the ones out front:

To be a backup singer you have to walk into any situation and just be perfect from the first take to the 50th take, and lead singers don’t have to do that. They can screw up. So backup singers are incredibly good, which is something I honestly didn’t know going into it. I thought, ‘Maybe they’re maybe not quite as good as a lead singer, which is why they ended up in the backup world,’ which is the exact opposite of the truth, because they are always better…Unless you’re singing with Aretha or something, you’re pretty much better than the lead singer.

The movie reviews below are representative of a general consensus, which is that both the film and its subjects are highly enjoyable, entertaining, and inspirational to behold.

Marshall Fine, The Huffington Post: “It’s hard to imagine another documentary this year that will be as uplifting, entertaining and moving as Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom.”

Ernest Hardy, Village Voice: “An exquisitely rendered look at the dialectics of celebrity and artistry, luck and hard work, its conversation laced with smart observations about race and gender.”

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “No one knows better than critics that the one-size-fits-all movie has yet to be made, but every once in a while something comes along that just about everyone is guaranteed to enjoy, and the irresistible documentary ’20 Feet From Stardom’ is one of those times.”

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