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20 Feet From Stardom

A hugely entertaining yet bittersweet music documentary about the backing vocalists behind some of the industry's biggest hits.
By Karina Abadia
November 05, 2013
By Karina Abadia
November 05, 2013

How many backing singers do you know of? I couldn't name any before I watched 20 Feet From Stardom, a hugely entertaining yet bittersweet music documentary about the ladies behind some of the industry's biggest hits.

Mick Jagger, Sting, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen are interviewed about what their back up singers mean to them but the real insight comes from interviews with the women themselves. Dozens of singers tell their story but director Morgan Neville focuses mainly on a few which he juxtaposes with archival footage of their past performances. Darlene Love was as a member of the 1950s vocal trio The Blossoms and sang lead vocals on 'He's a Rebel'. Surprisingly, she wasn't credited for her role on this song or others because at the time she was signed to a very controlling producer. She wanted her name in lights but instead she wound up disillusioned and working as a cleaner. In contrast to the moments of huge disappoint in the film, Love, who is now in her 70s, is experiencing a revival in her career.

Merry Clayton proves you don't have to be in the limelight to be a diva. She retells a cracking story about getting a late night call asking her to go down to the studio to record with some new British band called The Rolling Stones. She arrives in her silk pajamas with her hair in rollers and proceeds to blow their socks off with her spine-tingling vocals recorded for their 1969 hit 'Gimme Shelter'.

Along with back up singers who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, we are introduced to contemporary back up singers. No-one who has heard her a capella could argue with the fact that Lisa Fischer is a powerhouse singer. Sting classes her as one of the best and yet her solo career fizzled following her Grammy award-winning solo album. She can't really explain it but says perhaps too much time passed between her first and second albums. It's a really poignant moment which highlights how brutal the music industry can be.

The younger Judith Hill provides the film with an element of hope. She was to sing back up for Michael Jackson in his This Is It concert tour but instead ended up performing Heal The World at Jackson's memorial service to a billion people worldwide. She's determined to make it on her own but is biding her time because she knows making that leap from back up to centre stage is fraught with difficulty.

20 Feet From Stardom is a soulful and electrifying ride about an aspect of popular culture which has long been undervalued. The music in itself is fabulous but more than anything it's the frankness of the interviews which make it such an absorbing watch.

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