Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.
Year 3, Film #24
THE GOOD: The whole purpose of 20 Feet from Stardom is to try and give us a look into what it’s like to live the life of a backup singer. While I found many faults with this documentary, if you evaluate it on that purpose, you’ll find much that surprises you.
The biggest surprise for me came with a look into the recording of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, probably one of the most famous songs discussed in this film. Part of this recording was backup-vocalist Merry Clayton who sings a very emotional part towards the end, saying “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away,” repeatedly. Clayton gets so passionate while singing that her voice cracks a few times and makes that one of the most memorable parts of the song.
It’s moments and insights like this that make 20 Feet from Stardom sing (pardon the pun). The whole beauty about this film is seeing just how important these singers are. The whole point is that it’s showing some of the biggest moments in music history have been made possible due to these people we know almost nothing about. Backup singers have helped make some big stars famous with their voices and they get little to no credit in return. 20 Feet from Stardom is their chance to tell the world who they are and we get a fascinating, and extremely detailed look (there’s a lot of information covered here) into their lives.
THE BAD: Unfortunately, the entire documentary seems like one big oxymoron. Giving these singers the spotlight and showing their accomplishments seems to be saying, “It’s a shame they can’t be big stars.” They have the talent to succeed but instead they constantly take the back seat. As we find out though, many of these singers either don’t want to take on the big role of a lead singer, or if they do, they lack the ego, arrogance, and wherewithal to succeed in doing it. The film shows both sides of this coin but then pretend like the other side doesn’t exist.
Another oxymoronic thing the film does is talk about how important it was to have young singers because the youth really shone through in the voice and is what made the backup vocals so powerful and, in a way, overwhelming of the leads. But, pretty much the only people that are interviewed are older people who were singers in the 1950s-1970s. They do feature a new, young singer, Judith Hill, who was to sing with Michael Jackson on his “This Is It” tour before he passed away, but that’s pretty much it. A possible reason for this, as the film mentions, is that backup singers are becoming more rare in the modern day as recording studios are just using on artist to record the multiple harmonies in separate takes instead of having a group of singers sing it in one take.
THE TAKEAWAY: 20 Feet from Stardom is like a look back at the glory days and reminiscing on what it would have been like if these backup singers took the lead role. Part of this is interesting and surprising seeing just how vital a role some of these people played in some of the biggest recordings of all time. The other part is left hanging though waiting for answers or something to tie everything together. Because as things stand, it’s conflicting messages and at times, making us wonder why we’re watching this.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5