As I said in a recent review of another documentary, The Wrecking Crew, there has been a spate of films during the past couple of years that seek to highlight the contributions of some of music’s unsung heroes, for example session musicians who are or were tied to a certain studio, or label. In the case of 20 Feet From Stardom it’s the turn of the backing singer, a performer that is often taken for granted. Once Morgan Neville’s film has made this point, within the first few minutes, it doesn’t really have a lot else to say, but I suppose that’s not really the point. The aim of the film is to put these people (well, women, as only one man pops up) in the spotlight for a change, whether that be through the inclusion of archive footage or through new interviews. Unsurprisingly one or two have enjoyed successful solo careers, though in many cases it transpires that the singer in question simply doesn’t wish to be in the limelight and is happy at the back of the stage, despite often having as much singing talent as the star they perform with.
The assembled footage, which leans heavily towards performers of soul and pop hits from the 50s and 60s, provides plenty of evidence of the quality of the singers. There are interesting anecdotes aplenty – Merry Clayton was heavily pregnant when the Stones called her in late at night to sing on Gimme Shelter, for example – but the real highlight of the film is the story of Darlene Love, who has led a life filled with ups and downs. In fact Love’s career is so interesting she could easily be the sole focus of a documentary: she sang on a number of well-known Phil Spector productions, but for some reason – you’ll have to ask Phil why this is – she never received the proper credit; Love and her vocal group The Blossoms recorded the hit single He’s A Rebel, for example, but it was officially released as a song by The Crystals, even though that’s Love you hear singing the lead vocals. The end sequence concentrates on her belated and emotional induction into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, the film’s position presumably being that she is the first of many who should receive such an accolade, and finishes with her performing a rousing rendition of Lean On Me with several other backing singers. It’s an enjoyable watch, though nothing special, and I’m surprised that it beat Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing at the 86th Academy Awards.
Directed by: Morgan Neville.
Starring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Mick Jagger.
Cinematography: Nicola Marsh, Graham Willoughby.
Editing: Jason Zeldes, Kevin Klauber, Doug Blush.
Running Time: 90 minutes.