Twenty Feet from Stardom

Sweet harmony personified.

Sweet harmony personified.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Lynn Mabry, Claudia Lennear, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin, Gloria Jones, Janice Pendarvis, Stevvi Alexander. Directed by Morgan Neville

Florida Film Festival 2013

We all know the stars. Their faces, their voices, their music. We can hum their songs in our sleep. We don’t always get the full components of what goes into that classic music however. We rarely know who the backup singers are.

This documentary aims to rectify that. Focusing mainly on four African-American women, the movie looks at the importance of back-up singers to popular music of the last say, 50 years or so. There’s Darlene Love, for example, who not only sang leads on a lot of classic songs (“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” comes to mind) but her voice can be heard on some of Phil Spector’s classic hits – as part of The Blossoms, an early girl group she fronted, her powerful voice decorated some of the classic songs of the ’60s. Still, she’s primarily known as playing Danny Glover’s wife on the Lethal Weapon films.

Merry Clayton, like many of the great backup singers the daughter of a preacher, is perhaps best remembered as the female voice on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter” for which she was awakened in the middle of the night to do and sang in pajamas and curlers.  She’s sang for some of the biggest names in music and while her face may not be familiar, I guarantee you’ve heard her voice many times.

Lisa Fisher may have the most amazing voice of them all. While much in demand (she has been the Stones’ touring backup vocalist for more than 20 years) she has for the most part shunned a solo career (although she won a Grammy for her lone solo album). She prefers to sing for the simple joy of singing, preferring to remain in the background rather than pursuing the solo career she more than has the talent to achieve.

Judith Hill famously sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial service and is heavily featured in the documentary of the rehearsals for his final tour that never happened due to his untimely death. She writes and performs not only for herself but for other big stars and recently became a contestant on the singing competition The Voice which I would count her a heavy favorite to win it all.

These women and many others like them (and a few men too) may not be well known but they are absolute titans in the industry. The respect that is paid them by the stars who are interviewed is palpable and as is mentioned by Claudia Lennear during the film, most people when they’re singing along to a song are singing what the backup singers are singing.

I will confess to having been a music critic for nearly a dozen years in the San Francisco Bay Area and like most people – critics included – I kind of took the contributions of these amazing singers for granted. One of the best thing this movie does is break down the importance of the background singers in the song. One stark illustration of this is found when ”Gimme Shelter” is played with the tracks removed one at a time until only Clayton’s vocal track remains. It’s a very simple yet effective reminder of the power of the human voice.

The human connection through music is universal. There are those who feel a particular passion for it and have the talent and the desire to express themselves through their music. Some of them make it and some of them don’t regardless of how good they are – it’s largely a matter of luck and timing. For my money, regardless of the fame and fortune these ladies and others like them have gathered (or lack thereof) they are every one of them stars in my book. If you love rock and roll or hell, any sort of pop music, you owe it to yourself to see this. It will change your outlook on music – in a good way – forever.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and spiritually uplifting. Everything a documentary should be.

REASONS TO STAY: If musical documentaries don’t interest you…

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few swear words and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Gil Friesen, the former head of A&M records, came up with the idea and title after attending a Leonard Cohen show with his friend Jimmy Buffett. Unfortunately, Friesen passed away shortly before the film debuted at Sundance earlier this year.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film has appeared at Sundance but won’t see theatrical release until June 14th but frankly, I don’t see critics not falling in love with this early Oscar contender.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Nancy, Please and more from the 2013 Florida Film Festival

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