There’s something incredibly tonic about listening to music with backup singers: doo-wop groups, girl groups, gospel choirs — the list goes on. The other thing about backup singing: You want to do it too. Consider that when Paul McCartney sang “Hey Jude” at the Library of Congress, the Obama family stepped up on stage and sang as a sort of backup-on-the-frontlines vocal unit and looked like they were having a real nice time.
But when backup singing is an actual profession, niceness steps out and brute reality intervenes. “20 Feet From Stardom” is all about that reality, directed by long-time music-documentary maker Morgan Neville. Neville has used his clout and cachet to assemble an impressive array of big-name stars, such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Stevie Wonder, to sit and talk about their own history and relationships with backup singers. They all talk about the wonderful talent and generosity these singers brought to their concerts and albums (except Mick Jagger, who makes no bones about saying things like: “She was very hot — a beautiful girl”).
In the film, you’ll meet and hear the stories of back-chorus divas Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and others. Some of them have been around since the 1960s. Others, such as Judith and Michiko Hill, worked with Michael Jackson on his “This is it” tour. They’ve all played vital roles in making and shaping the careers of the biggest artists of our time.
For all that, it seems they haven’t always got much in the way of compensation. The film tells us how backup singers are perpetually plagued by two things: lack of credit and lack of payment. Love talks about how “things got so bad” she took on house-cleaning to pay the rent. Love also reveals how for years she did ghost vocals for Phil Spector, only to have him quash her career just when she was about to go solo. Love recovered and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Or take Clayton, whose voice is instantly recognizable from the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” For that recording, Clayton was forced out of bed at 2 a.m. while pregnant and showed up at the studio in hair curlers and pajamas.
Neville doesn’t gloss over the downsides of the profession, but perhaps he glamourizes it when things are good. Which does the film a huge favor — after all, every one of these ladies wears glamour like a favorite brand of makeup. At the peak of her career Claudia Lennear worked with Jagger and David Bowie and is said to have inspired the Stones song “Brown Sugar.” (She later appeared in a Playboy photo spread with that same title.) Now a lady of formidable age, she says plaintively, “I never wanted to be a sex symbol,” with the assured confidence of a woman who has never been anything but red-hot her entire life.
Ultimately, the backup singers portrayed in the film live for their art, which is something they have in common with the stars. Together, they create a sound that transcends vocals, and a recording session becomes a journey to get to a place of sheer magical music. That the place is divided by an invisible curtain, with the star performers shifting to the front of the stage while the backups stand 20 feet behind, is a paradigm that remains unchanged. So near, and yet so far.