20 Feet from Stardom, this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Documentary, is both rousing, upbeat fare… and a film steeped in a strange sense of yearning and regret. It is a celebration of back-up singers. Their voices are heard on countless well-known songs but their names remain unknown to any but music-world insiders. Their lack of recognition has nothing to do with their talent, which invariably eclipses that of the stars they accompany. It is as if they are held back by invisible strings. Few of them make that journey from the back of the stage to its centre.
“It’s a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is… complicated,” rock star Bruce Springsteen muses on the anonymity that these singers both resent and seem half to relish. They have huge voices and big stage presences. Many behave like divas and aspire to have solo careers but they can’t escape their place in the margins.
The director Morgan Neville (who has made documentaries about Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters) has assembled 20 Feet from Stardom in a random and impressionistic way. There is no particular sense of chronology or structure as he flits between archive footage and contemporary interviews with singers and some of the big names they’ve worked for, among them Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder. Back-up artists who became stars don’t seem to interest him. He deals only in passing with Luther Vandross (who sang on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”) and doesn’t even mention Rita Coolidge. Most of his interviewees here are female, African-American and come from a gospel background. They grew up singing in church choirs and associate music with religion, community and transcendence. That’s one reason, it is suggested, why they are not (overly) preoccupied with worldly success.
20 Feet from Stardom isn’t polemical in tone and yet it hints at the racism and sexism that may have kept the subjects here in the background. Táta Vega is a prodigiously talented soul singer, compared by many to Aretha Franklin – and that’s the problem. The music industry of the 1970s only had room for “one Aretha” and Vega’s attempts at a solo career soon fizzled out as a consequence.
Other back-up singers were exploited for their looks: dressed in skimpy outfits, made to dance and used as “eye candy”. Ike Turner, one interviewee tells us, regarded himself as the pimp and his wife (Tina Turner) and back-up singers as “the women who worked for him”.
Neville relishes the contrast between the lives the singers led in their younger years and their humdrum existences today. The supremely glamorous Claudia Lennear, supposedly the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, is now a dutiful foreign language teacher. Another singer, Darlene Love, tells a poignant story about how she had quit the business and was working as a maid. One day, as she was cleaning her employer’s house, she heard one of her songs on the radio. She had performed lead vocals on several hits, among them “He’s a Rebel”, but claims that producer Phil Spector denied her recognition. Hearing the song prompted her to re-enter the music business – and, second time round, she finally made the leap to stardom and was even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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