Twenty Feet from Stardom

Sep 19, 2013

“Some people will do anything to be famous; other people just want to sing,” says Lisa Fischer, one of several back up singers featured in Twenty Feet from Stardom. The film explores the triumphs and tragedies of the real life stories of the back up vocalists on the greatest popular hits of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

Singing back ups “is a soulful caregiving with few rewards. For some, this is bliss. For others, it’s purgatory,” says Warren Zanes.Fifty personal interviews and rare footage of recording sessions explore the dichotomous experience of working anonymously alongside super-stardom, and how fame eludes some while others avoid it like the plague. Backup singers Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, and Tata Vega as well as lead singers Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, and Sting appear in the film.

“As we got deeper into production, we learned that—true to our subject—not everybody wanted to be in a documentary. There are people who in some cases chose to stay on the margins and did not want to get near the spotlight. They’d had a front row seat to fame at work and saw its many pitfalls,” says the film’s director Morgan Neville, who also directed Johnny Cash’s America (2008) and Troubadours (2011).

The film is the brain child of Gil Friesen, who died this past December upon completion of this film. In the words of director Morgan Neville, Friesen “didn’t know what the film was going to be, but he knew there was something intriguing in there…. As I started talking to friends who knew a lot about music, I quickly discovered that nobody knew much about backup singers. I looked for a book or even a website on the subject… nothing.”

Backup singers “can often sing circles around lead singers,” says Neville. While they perfect a wide range of styles and genres, their chief talent is achieving a sound known as “The Blend”—an ability to truly blend in with the other back up singers and basically disappear into the background to allow the lead singer to shine. Third, nearly all top-notch back up singers honed their skill singing in the church choir. Perhaps this explains the churchy sound popular music took on with the advent of rock and roll. The stylistic tendency toward a gospel sound persists to this day, although it is so pervasive few recall its gospel roots. There’s a forward motion, a drive toward something like transcendence in the music of every person featured in this film.

“There’s nothing in the world like gospel music. It brings a certain spirit to the music,” says Merry Clayton, who sang with everyone from Elvis and Ray Charles to the Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones. But she is best known for her unforgettable performance on “Gimme Shelter,” the 1969 classic by the Rolling Stones that was borne of the civil rights era.

The incomparable Tata Vega was a solo artist with Motown in the 1970s until she was suddenly dropped and found herself destitute. Then she was re-discovered by gospel singer Andre Crouch. This contact led her to Steven Spielberg, who at the time was looking for a vocalist for the soundtrack of his film The Color Purple and was blown away by Vega’s distinctive sound. The fact that she is not African American never came up.

Judith Hill was scheduled to sing harmonies for Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” tour in London. Her moving performance of Jackson’s “Heal the World” at his memorial service was viewed online by an estimated one billion people worldwide. She has both the will and the chops to launch a solo career. But despite the worldwide exposure, Hill has found the transition from back up singer to star near impossible. “When you’re a background singer, there’s a springboard at the beginning, but it can easily become quicksand if that’s not what you want to do.”

Darlene Love, a member of the Blossoms, reportedly teared up upon seeing the film. She sang on dozens of hits including those by Warwick and Sinatra, but her career was actively thwarted by her own producer, Phil Spector. “With Phil Spector, there couldn’t be another star in the same room, so he really put Darlene in a box. The best material she put out wasn’t even under her name,” explained Warren Zanes, music historian and consulting producer on the film. She was forced to take a job as a housekeeper. Today she is an author, a member of the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, and has reunited with the Blossoms for the first time in forty years to acclaimed success.

Twenty Feet from Stardom is a long overdue acknowledgement of behind-the-scenes talent, one of several, including Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) about the Funk Brothers, the uncredited handpicked studio musicians behind the success of the label, and The Wrecking Crew (2008) about the team of L.A. session musicians who could be counted on to knock out hit after hit throughout the ‘60s, all for double union scale. These films are welcomed trips down memory lane, and indeed audiences tend to be old enough to remember.

Some back up singers went into thinking it would be a stepping stone, others are content to remain in the shadows. Everyone’s story is different. But there are common denominators. First, they see themselves as singers, not back up singers, and just because you’re anonymous doesn’t mean you can’t be a diva. Second, they possess some of the finest voices ever recorded.

A thread running through the film, mostly beneath the surface, is the abuse of the record industry, even back in the glory days when money more freely flowed in America. Hopefully the film will open up important discussions about the future of making music. Today the demand for back up vocalists is much smaller than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Technology has made it easy for artists to lay down their own harmonies on recordings even as technology continues to shrink the pie overall for musicians. That, combined with the continued rise of the youth culture means that increasingly music is but a short-lived career for most, and therefore can no longer be treated as if it were a real career choice. Musicians would do well to double major in school or otherwise prepare two career paths.

Although these issues were either superficially dealt with or not mentioned at all, simply in making the film the curtain has been opened on some long-festering problems with the way the business is structured. Warren Zanes recalled that Friesen “felt satisfaction knowing that a conversation that he’d started, one that was important to him, was far from over.” –Laura Moreno (Tremolo)