Some of the greatest songs of the 20th century wouldn’t be as catchy or memorable as they are without the backing vocals of artists who have made a career of staying just out of the limelight. The documentary 20 Feet from Stardom examines the kind of personality that such a sacrifice requires by interviewing some of the most prevalent back-up singers of all time, like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, and Claudia Lennear, as well as the artists whose hits they helped push to the top of the charts. It’s not often that you see a superstar like Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen giving away so much credit for their success to another musician, but 20 Feet from Stardom elicits such moments seemingly effortlessly.
One of the easiest traps to fall into when it comes to thinking of backup singers is that they’re artists who fall just short of having the requisite talent to make it on their own. Though the solo careers of many of the backup singers featured in this documentary did fail to gain traction, it becomes very clear that it was more a symptom of the time than it was any lack of talent. The women highlighted here are bursting with talent. Hearing them bust out and deliver an incredible solo or provide the vocals for the most memorable parts of a song will solidify once and for all any viewer’s appreciation of their talent. These women deserve just as much success as any of the more famous acts they backed up (and we get to see countless clips of them doing just that – as the singer in question often looks on with obvious admiration), but whether it was bad timing, a bad contract with Phil Spector, or the lack of an ego to give them that extra push, these women were never able to make that final steps to center stage.
It’s a humbling documentary and 20 Feet from Stardom reminds us just how talented a backup singer has to be. For any music lover, this documentary is a must-see.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
A short film, a Q&A with the director and many of the backup singers featured here, and deleted scenes are the only extras.
"20 Feet from Stardom" is on sale January 14, 2014 and is rated PG13. Documentary. Directed by Morgan Neville. Starring Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer.