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20 Feet From Stardom (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

20 Feet From Stardom


Starring Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Julia Waters, Maxine Waters, Oren Waters, Patti Austin, Sheryl Crow, Cissy Houston, Gloria Jones, Cindy Mizelle, Martha Wash, Edna Wright, Lou Adler, David Lasley, Sharon Robinson, Susan Collins, Lynn Maybry, Susaye Greene, Jo Lawry, Ross Stone, Janice Pendarvis, Warren Zanes and Dr. Mabel John.

Directed by Morgan Neville.

Distributed by RADiUS-TWC. 90 minutes. Rated PG-13.

In almost every song, there is buried deep into the mix a strong, backing vocal which enhances the melody, sometimes single-handedly lifting the work into the stratosphere.

Professional backing vocalists in general are a pretty unassuming lot, extremely talented artists who often lack the writing ability or the drive or the dumb luck to become stars themselves.

Many of them are far better singers than the artists for whom they work, adorning their creations with their own flashy styles and having the humility to work as part of the team, not as the one in charge.

"It's a bit of a walk," Bruce Springsteen says at the opening of this film, "from back by the drummer over here. That walk to the front is complicated. Singing background remains a somewhat unheralded position, you know? People make that leap. It's almost more of a mental leap than just the physical act of singing. It's a conceptual leap. If you can comfortably come up with it, then you may find a spot out there."

20 Feet from Stardom takes a look at four singers who have spent years trying to make that leap – though the film also speaks with dozens of others who are in similar positions. The extremely talented women (and a couple of men) who make up the bulk of 20 Feet From Stardom have all played a part in some of the most memorable music of our lifetime, however with very few exceptions most people (other than music geeks like me) have never heard of them.

However, that relative obscurity does not make their musical contributions any less staggering. Thus, director Morgan Neville has decided to give them their time in the sun with this touching documentary.

As 20 Feet from Stardom is receiving video release, it has also gotten a well-deserved nomination for an Oscar for Best Documentary.

The four singers that 20 Feet from Stardom highlights are girl group pioneer Darlene Love, 60s funk singer Merry Clayton, the amazingly versatile 80s vocalist Lisa Fischer and a newer artist named Judith Hill, who looked to be courting stardom when she was picked by Michael Jackson as his duet partner on the aborted This Is It tour.

Most of these women grew up singing in the church, and as such learned to be part of a team – singing for the whole song, not just the glory of the solo.

Rock and roll hall of famer Darlene Love is the only one of these artists who could be called widely known. However, 20 Feet From Stardom shows how her career was thwarted by a terrible contract with producer Phil Spector, who went out of his way to hold her back – releasing her songs under the banner of other groups, refusing to promote her solo work. It got so bad that she gave up singing for many years, making a living as a maid. It was only years later when she was cleaning a bathroom at a house that she worked on and her holiday classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" came on the radio that she realized that she was wasting her life and returned to music. And while she may never become the star she should have been, she has carved out a niche in the music world and a way to make a good living as a singer.

Love is not the only one who had to get a day job as auto tune and youth took over. Former Ikette Claudia Lennear (who is not one of the four main artists profiled, however her story is told in great depth as well) became a Spanish teacher. Mabel John returned to the church.

Merry Clayton also just flirted with solo stardom – in fact, her only real hit as a solo artist was well after her glory days, when she had the minor hit "Yes!" from the retro-leaning Dirty Dancing soundtrack. (Oddly, that late-career flirtation with the charts is totally ignored in this film.) However her mesmerizing backing vocals on classic songs like Joe Cocker's "Feeling Alright," The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" (done when she was hugely pregnant) and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" wiped the floors with the artists she was performing with. However, Clayton shows herself to have been much too opinionated and eccentric an artist to have ever been a star... though it would have been a better world if she could have.

Lisa Fischer's career came a couple of decades after these two. She also flirted briefly with solo stardom, getting a hit single and a Grammy in the early 90s for her song "How Can I Ease the Pain?" However, with her wonderfully supple voice, she understands that she works better as a spice than as the main course and has come to terms with her place in the pecking order.

The least interesting of these four is Judith Hill, which is odd, because she is the one who does write her own music and has the best chance at getting a solo career off the ground. She claims that she won't take backing jobs offered her because it will hurt her musical career, though it turns out she does it periodically anyway. And honestly, the snippets of her own music shown in the film are much less memorable than most of the other music here.

However by shining a light on these overlooked talents, plus other great overlooked singers as Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, The Waters Family, Patti Austin, Cissy Houston, Gloria Jones, Cindy Mizelle, Martha Wash, Edna Wright, David Lasley, Sharon Robinson and Dr. Mabel John, 20 Feet From Stardom does a necessary service to the music world. At the same time, it gives a sad reminder of what might have been.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: January 27, 2014.

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