20 Feet From Stardom You probably know the 60’s band The Crystals, but may not realize they lip-synced their hit He’s A Rebel which was actually sung by Darlene Love who had to fight Phil Specter for credit. Or that backup singer Merry Clayton was awoken in the middle of the night by The Rolling Stones to record the eternal lines of Gimme Shelter “rape, murder…it’s just a shot away.” She happened to be in curlers, very pregnant and wearing a mink coat at the time.
These are just two of the vibrant stories that are featured in Morgan Neville’s Rock documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom. This fine and shimmering Rock documentary entertains, educates and enlightens all the way. Inspired by the Gospel roots of Rock and Roll, we see these still-gorgeous backup singers (Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, and Dr Mabel John ) in a new light through interviews with the Rock legends they are intimately connected to. Bruce Springsteen offers generous details of their Gospel roots (most of them learned to sing in church).
Stevie Wonder, David Bowie ,Sting, Luther Vondross, Bette Midler and Mick Jagger relay insights on what it meant to be a backup singer during 1960’s into the 1990’s. Recruited both by British bands for their Gospel talents and music producers such as Phil Specter, the singers often found themselves both glorified and used, while their rich voices solidified legendary songs and became familiar to millions of fans. Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side without the backup singers? Impossible.
The most poignant part of the film is the story of Darlene Love who gave up her music career after fighting Phil Specter and took a job cleaning houses. One day while cleaning a bathroom she heard one of her stolen songs on the radio. She took this as an omen to return to the music industry, thankfully. Eventually she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lisa Fischer’s story is a bit more complicated. Her ethereal voice has blessed the Rolling Stones’ stage for years in duets with Jagger. Yet, she has chosen not to endlessly pursue the solo route that many backup singers aspire to. Sometimes life’s circumstances don’t allow the most talented to reach super heights of fame. Perhaps they are better off in the background which is also a theme of this emotional story. Fischer won a Grammy in 1992, but never had another album.
20 Feet From Stardom is a tribute to her enormous talent and unique style of R& B, so perhaps this will inspire another album in the future. The world needs her talent. This is more than a Rock documentary. It is also a feminist story of under-recognized African American female singers who were often taken advantage of by the LA music industry. These women are national treasures to be honored and showcased; Neville has done a great job of doing so.