When recalling the Rolling Stones’ 1969 single “Gimme Shelter,” one thinks of Mick Jagger’s snarling lead vocal. Equally important to the song’s legendary status, however, is Merry Clayton’s passionate performance. Her name may not instantly ring a bell, but her gospel-drenched voice shouting “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away” remains instantly recognizable. Clayton and other unsung heroes of R&B and rock music are celebrated in the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, an essential addition to any music fan’s library.
Eschewing narration, the film allows the noted backup singers to tell their own stories. The tales they spin are both inspiring and heartbreaking, demonstrating the roller-coaster lives of studio musicians. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they say they belong to the “sisterhood,” a shared love of music and knowledge that their names may never be widely known. In the world of backup singers; however, the names featured in 20 Feet from Stardom derive from the A-list of world class vocalists: Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, and the aforementioned Clayton. Another backing vocalist group, the Waters Family, also lends their perspectives on the profession.
As the women reminisce about their careers, one is amazed that they never reached worldwide stardom. Fischer came closest to a solo career, earning a Grammy for her 1991 hit “How Can I Ease the Pain.” A combination of label problems and discomfort with being the lead vocalist led her to return to backup status. Darlene Love came closest to a lengthy solo career through her association with producer Phil Spector; after recording the hit “He’s A Rebel” with a studio group Spector called The Crystals, she released several 1963 singles including “(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Going To Marry” and “Wait ’Til My Bobby Comes Home.” After falling on hard times in the 1970s, Love explains, she ended up cleaning houses to make ends meet. She mounted a comeback in the 1980s, embarking on an acting career as well as recording new material. Today she stands as one of the most respected and famous backup singers in music.
Wisely filmmaker Morgan Neville allows the personalities and their backgrounds to dominate the film rather than using any voiceover narration. Perhaps the greatest moment of the documentary occurs when Clayton visits the recording studio where she laid down her vocals on “Gimme Shelter.” As her face lights up, obviously reveling in good memories, the isolated vocal track plays in the background. She recalls standing at the microphone, deciding at that moment that “I’m gonna blow them out of this room!” she remembers. Her voice is then heard shouting “Rape! Murder” at the top of her lungs, with Jagger and the group shouting their encouragement. Clearly Clayton feels this was a milestone in her career, and one gains appreciation for how a backup singer can completely transform a track.
Hill represents the newest generation; while the DVD box touts her appearance on NBC’s The Voice, her life before her reality-show debut amazes even more. After years of singing backup, she was selected to be a featured singer in This Is It, Michael Jackson’s ill-fated comeback concert series. His tragic death abruptly ended those plans, and Hill has been forced to start over with her career. Her ultimate goal, she explains, is to become a solo act, and judging from the other women’s stories, she may be in for a bumpy ride.
Toward the end of the film, the singers reconvene in a studio to record a cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” They chose an appropriate tune, since artists have to lean on these professional singers’ talent to create some historic tracks. Interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, and Jagger supply evidence for this fact. 20 Feet from Stardom shines a deserved spotlight on often under-appreciated MVPs in rock and soul music. After watching the film, one will listen to recordings with a new sense of respect for these unsung musicians. Their stories demonstrate that backup singers selflessly cede fame and fortune to lead artists, yet they still indulge in their shared passion: signing.