Emily Romain, marketing manager at Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, reviews today’s Picturehouse DOCS presentation of 20 FEET FROM STARDOM which plays as part of our weekly Discover Tuesdays strand.
During the opening credits of 20 FEET FROM STARDOM we hear Lou Reed croon: ‘the coloured girls go doo do doo.’ The early-’70s language is dated now, but the line did acknowledge the women who had by then become an established yet under-recognised cornerstone of rock and pop. In this Academy Award-winning documentary, some of the most successful backing singers of all time finally have their say.
Surprisingly, the phenomenon of the backing singer has never previously been explored on film. In this understated movie, Morgan Neville shines a much-deserved spotlight on the wealth of talent who collectively shaped the sound of the 20th century. On records by stars from Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder, Bowie to the Rolling Stones, Elton John to Sting and everybody in between, these superb vocalists can be heard.
While the documentary is in great part a joyous salute to talent, it is also a bittersweet meditation on the notion of celebrity. It is mostly luck that determines who is at the front of the stage and who stands in the background, and this becomes painfully clear through the many stories of backing singers who tried and failed to achieve superstardom, such as Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and Claudia Lennear.
In a culture saturated by images of celebrity, we are constantly told that we can achieve stardom too, if only we try hard enough, diet long enough and appear on The X Factor. It is sobering to hear dissenting voices – the voices of the stunningly gifted who never made it because the timing was wrong, or they did not have record label support, or there was somebody else already there. We see the reality of a cutthroat industry in which chance is key. Merry Clayton, we are told, couldn’t make it because ‘there’s only one Aretha.’
Despite such tales, Neville avoids any note of self-pity in the women’s stories. Yes, these singers did not reach the heights of fame they had dreamed of, but their genuinely great achievements are celebrated nonetheless.
Furthermore, Neville makes it clear that not all backing singers do dream of such heights. One story in particular has moved audiences across the globe. Neville himself has described Lisa Fischer, backing singer for the likes of Sting and the Rolling Stones, as ‘the soul of the movie’. Indeed, it is impossible not to fall in love with her. She has a transcendent gift, and those within the industry acknowledge her as a star; however, she has none of the ego required to take centre stage. To hear such a powerhouse voice employed so humbly and to such beautiful effect is a refreshing privilege – in itself reason enough to watch this documentary.
On stage, backing singers are required to blend, to be a collective. 20 FEET FROM STARDOM reveals and revels in their individuality. It is sympathetic without being doting, and uplifting where it might have been pitying. It is first and foremost a celebration of music, and an acknowledgement of those who are at its heart.