Backup singers take center stage in "20 Feet from Stardom"

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 26, 2013

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Very necessary: Backup singers (from left) Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer wail their hearts out in a scene from "20 Feet from Stardom."

Just thrilling. Morgan Neville’s spirited, crowd-pleasing documentary 20 Feet from Stardom shines a light on maybe the most neglected musical artists this side of bass players: backup singers.

Cheekily opening with Lou Reed muttering “and the colored girls sing do-dah-do-do-dah-dah-do-doo,” this jubilant film festival favorite brings the house down while paying tribute to a lost art. In these days of multi-tracking and Auto-Tune, there’s hardly much need anymore for anybody singing backup, but think about all your favorite old songs, and chances are it’s the anonymous “sho-be-doos” you’ll always find yourself singing along with in the car.

Godfathered into production by the late A&M Records exec Gil Friesen, 20 Feet from Stardom has no shortage of access. Hell, its first interview features our current musical laureate Bruce Springsteen waxing rhapsodic about the gospel-based call-and-response back-and-forth that loaned a little bit of soul to rock ‘n’ roll.

Neville kaleidoscopes a handful of conflicting stories, not many of which end particularly well, getting down to gritty details with the underpaid and often uncredited African-American women who changed the way music sounded. The spine of this whole thing is the redemption saga of Darlene Love. Born Darlene Wright and re-christened by psychotic uber-producer Phil Spector, Love’s extraordinary trumpet of a voice was cynically repurposed and repackaged on damn near half the recordings our diminutive convicted-murderer-slash- genius ever released. Didn’t matter which girl group Phil was selling this week, Love never got an iota of credit. The Mephistophelean producer kept messing with her contract and buying her back until she ended up flat broke and cleaning houses in the early ‘80s. Because this was just a job, you see; an hourly paycheck gig for most.

20 Feet from Stardom’s show-stopping moment arrives with the tale of Merry Clayton, called to a studio in the middle of the night and arriving with rollers in her hair. The Rolling Stones were stuck in a rut on a tune called “Gimme Shelter,” when all of the sudden, Clayton started wailing—in only two takes—about how rape and murder are just a shot away. Neville isolates her vocal track, and we sit for a minute to listen with Mick Jagger. Watching the most poised, polished professional rock star in history suddenly reduced to slackjawed giggles of awe might be my favorite thing seen all year. And I’m not sure where to even begin with the sight of a (comparatively) svelte young Luther Vandross singing behind David Bowie in his Young Americans Philly phase.

That’s what I love about this documentary: Neville is patient enough to let most songs play out rather than cutting them up into sound bytes. The Weinstein Company’s Radius division has picked up 20 Feet from Stardom and generally tosses films to Video On Demand with only a token theatrical release. But trust me, like live music, this thing plays better with a crowd. Do yourself the favor, and watch it Siskel and Ebert-style: at the movies.

Self-described diva Clayton speaks eloquently of the internal conflict that arose when she was invited to take part in Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” A lifetime of Jim Crow laws welling up in her voice while inanely celebrating dumb hick traditions that tried to keep her down, Clayton sang along in the spirit of defiance, and her final answer eventually arrives when this movie finds old footage of her ripping the hell of out Neil Young’s “Southern Man.”

There’s more than a little racism percolating under the surface here, which is typical for this rotten industry. People like Jagger and Sting need ladies like Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer to give their songs soul, but just don’t expect these gals to get much credit beyond a studio day rate and brief mention in the album liner notes. 20 Feet from Stardom is full of wondrous musical moments and solo careers that almost—but didn’t quite—happen. Watching this movie feels like finally giving credit where it’s due.

Love’s story, at least, has a happy ending. As legend goes, she was cleaning a house in Los Angeles one holiday and heard her own immortal “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio. Love immediately decided to get back into the business, scrambling back up the showbiz ladder, with big assists from a supporting role as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies and David Letterman’s insistence that she appear on his show every December to sing that priceless Yuletide staple.   

20 Feet from Stardom closes with Love’s much-deserved induction into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, sending the audience out on a euphoric cloud as she performs “He’s A Fine, Fine Boy” with the E Street Band. Except this time, Springsteen is the one singing backup.

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