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USA 2013
Directed by
Morgan Neville
89 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

20 Feet From Stardom

Synopsis: A clutch of backup singers talk about their lives with additional commentary from the superstars whose recordings they helped to make hits.

The tagline to this exciting toe-tapping doco is “Millions know their voices, but no one knows their names”. Such is the lot of backup singers, who often sacrifice their own solo careers to spend their lives in the shadows of superstars.

20 Feet From Stardom is a film not to be missed by music aficionados. Some years ago I delighted in Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, in which viewers learned of legendary back-up band The Funk Brothers, often heard but seldom given credit. And now, in a not dissimilar vein, we meet the singers who have been behind countless huge names like Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Leonard Cohen, The Crystals, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder . . . the list goes on, spanning both decades and genres. Even the role of the singers in modern day films such as The Lion King and Avatar gets a mention.  

Director Morgan Neville, who for 18 years has made films about musicians, began collecting hundreds of songs with great back up parts. The topic became his obsession and this film’s idea was born. He decided to concentrate in depth on a handful of singers, but includes insights from at least a dozen others. And so we meet the vibrant Darlene Love, now in her seventies, who in the 1960s sang with a studio back-up group The Blossoms, creating iconic sounds for countless top 40 hits. She was the lead vocal in "He’s A Rebel", although the song is credited to The Crystals. Another featured vocalist is Merry Clayton, best known for back-up vocals on the Stones’ "Gimme Shelter". Still touring with the Stones today is a woman with a spine-tingling voice – Lisa Fischer. She almost made it solo but her lack of ego meant that she never hit the big time.  

The singers reminisce about their careers, their attitudes to fame, their backgrounds (many being the gospel singing children of pastors), and their sheer love of singing. There are countless marvellous archival clips from all the eras covered, including raunchy performances from Tina Turner, backed by the Ikettes, and the foot-stomping Ray Charles accompanied by his Raylettes. And as older women today the singers even get together for this film to belt out a few numbers, the harmonies clean and close, their voices undiminished by the years.

Among the commentators are some gems of interviews. Bruce Springsteen reflects upon the vast difference between standing in the background with the drummer as against walking to the front of the stage. Mick Jagger, always an entertainment in himself, speaks glowingly of Lisa Fisher, as does Sting of Jo Lawry, one of the few white gals in the line-up. Bette Midler has her say, whilst legendary producer Lou Adler explains that there are a multitude of reasons why some back-ups don’t make it solorists.

One of the most telling comments is that when people sing a song, often what they are latching on to is in fact the back-up hook, such as “and the coloured girls go: doo dah doo doo dah doo dah a doo dah” from Lou Reed’s "Walk on the Wild Side". Seeing this doco will mean that you probably listen to much of your favourite music in a new light and the “dooby doo dahs” will never be quite the same again!




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