20 Feet From Stardom is the long overdue spotlight on the impact of gospel-infused backing singers on popular music. In the process, along with grace and humour, and with evidence of their talent laid bare, it raises pertinent questions as to how and why they remain on the fringes of fame and wider recognition.
Why aren’t these artists’ household names in their own right? What is that key difference in the titular 20 feet?
This film reflects on this notion through talking head testimony (and, at one point, literally the Talking Heads) from a whole roster of significant figures from the time and the era. Along with the much-quoted involvement of Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, there are core accounts from an array of members from the scene. The likes of Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and more take the backing singers witness stand. What they have to say is illuminating, heartfelt and, at times, tinged with disappointment.
There is an abundance of spoils in this film, but for this writer one of the main highlights is the spine-tingling moment when Merry Clayton sits in a studio and listens to an isolated tape of her singing the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. This is interspersed with clips of Mick Jagger doing the same. As her voice cracks beautifully on the ‘rape/murder/it’s just a shot away’ section, he cannot help but break into a smile. You will too. The sheer gall of her daring vocal and the command of her natural talent is a thing of astounding wonder.
It must be said that the film does run a little out of steam two-thirds of the way through, as it dips into the individual pursuits for stardom and their weathering-of-the-storm. However, it is arguable that the bubble pop of their dreams through these endeavours also gives the film its very reason to exist.
In terms of execution, the material is collated and edited with efficiency even if it is without flourishes of distinct personality. Metaphorically-speaking, the direction is the backing singer to the content. That is important though. This subject should be king (and queen).
Ultimately, what we have is an engrossing account on the swinging pendulum between stardom and perpetual struggle.
Judith Hill, a young 20-something backing singer forging her own mark as a contemporary singer-songwriter demands, as so many of the others did before her, to be better appreciated as a solo artist. In fact, to be completely fair, there are insufficient words of sufficient weight to commend any of the musicians featured here.
These artists and their contribution to music needs to be remembered. This is an engaging, entertaining and groove-laden feature that shimmies and shakes its way into your heart with a nagging insistency. Just see the film for yourself. You won’t regret it.
For those so inclined, 20 Feet From Stardom would make a wonderful double bill with the recently released Muscle Shoals.