Twenty Feet From Stardom: Sundance Review

Twenty Feet From Stardom

U.S.A. (Director: Morgan Neville)

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.

You may not know their names, but the performances of these instantly recognizable backups singers are unforgettable.

Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen sing the praises of backup singers.

PARK CITY – In the span of American pop music, few performers have gone as unrecognized as the backup vocalists who harmonize and contextualize the songs of many a heralded lead musician. With Twenty Feet From Stardom, some of the most notable finally get their due, but more than a tribute, the film is a recognition of the talent and sacrifice that many of these vocalists have invested in often challenging careers. Clearly cable-friendly, the film has bigger ambitions at stake, much like the musicians it profiles, and could potentially chart in limited theatrical, even crossing over to breakout success, despite a distinct focus on the VH1 and pre-music video eras.

With a documentary career that’s richly profiled the likes of Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, The Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam, Emmy-award winning director Morgan Neville brings an impressive wealth of talent and depth of experience to the project, enhanced by the decades-long perspective of producer and former A&M music exec Gil Friesen, who died late last year.  

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Departing from the nostalgic star-power of his last film, Troubadours, profiling Carole King and James Taylor, Neville shines a spotlight on the emergence of black background singers, primarily female, in the R&B and rock-and-roll genres in roughly chronological format.

Looking back to the hit careers of Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, and their contemporaries, Neville pinpoints the career launches of a clutch of backup singers who would go on to impressive careers in pop music, including Mable John, Susaye Greene, Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer. Many of these performers started out singing in gospel choirs at church as youngsters, perfecting the call and response techniques central to background performance, then segueing into professional careers. “God gave me this talent,” Love recalls thinking, “and I intend to use it.”

As Stevie Wonder remarks in a typically charismatic interview, during the '60s, “People started wanting songs with feeling.” As musical styles intensified and the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution and women’s liberation took hold, vocalists’ performances also became more expressive. Love was among the first black artists to introduce a new style of singing and presentation into backup performance, which was primarily white at the time. As a member of the highly prolific backing girl group The Blossoms (“He's a Rebel,” “Monster Mash”), she supported major stars like Frank Sinatra and Sam Cooke, before signing with legendary producer Phil Spector during his “Wall of Sound” era.

Spector reportedly thwarted Love’s ambitions however, by having her “ghost” perform the vocals of other singers credited with her performances. Nevertheless, her voice was a “sound we tried to capture for many, many years,” says Bruce Springsteen in his warm and admiring interview footage.

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From her start in gospel signing, Clayton’s career had a somewhat more glamorous trajectory, performing for Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Sweet Home Alabama”), Joe Cocker (“Feelin’ Alright) and most famously The Rolling Stones. She recalls the late-night recording session featuring her wailing, soulful vocals on 1969’s “Gimme Shelter” in a thoroughly absorbing interview, intercut with Mick Jagger speaking about the significance of that rare performance.

Fischer is another Stones backup vocalist who also works with Sting, known for her operatic style, ethereal singing and brilliant improvisation. “I love melodies,” she says. “I’m in love with the sound vibrations and what they do to other people.” Lucky enough to launch a solo career, only to see her releases fizzle out in the mainstream, Fischer maintains an upbeat and philosophical perspective, consoled in part by multiple gold records and a Grammy award.

Neville anchors the film’s narrative to retrospective accounts of Love, Clayton and Fischer’s careers, referencing them as a springboard to introduce many other talented singers, including Tata Vega, who supports Elton John on tour; Lynn Maybry, a Talking Heads veteran; Cindy Mizelle, background singer with Springsteen; and Janice Pendarvis, a Stevie Wonder collaborator. At least three members of the Waters family are featured, joking that they’ve worked on everything from The Lion King to Avatar, as well as supporting Michael Jackson, Donna Summer and Paul Simon. Judith Hill, who rehearsed to back up Jackson on the lamentably aborted “This Is It” tour, lends a more contemporary perspective, but still struggles like many of her predecessors to sustain herself as a solo artist.

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More recent decades have often seen backup singers cut out of the equation with the decline of expensive in-studio recording sessions, the introduction of tuning technology and the ascendance of home studio techniques, as well as reality shows like American Idol and similar programs, which tend to diminish the dedication required for a professional musical career.

Neville unearths a treasure trove of archival TV, concert and film footage featuring many of these vocalists in their heyday, balancing the material with perfectly-lit contemporary studio interviews and performances shot in pristine digital cinematography, supplemented by more informal scenes depicting the frequent challenges of these musicians' careers.

At one point in the film, Pendarvis notes that much of the pop music that fans love – especially the hooks that get them signing along -- is voiced by background singers. Although achieving crossover success, or launching a comeback career, is fraught with both personal and professional pitfalls, these women demonstrate drive and commitment that outshine even many well-known and sometimes less-talented musicians, assuring that their influence is unlikely to be underestimated again.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, US Documentary Competition
Production company: A Gil Friesen and Tremolo Production
Director: Morgan Neville    
Producers: Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers        
Executive Producers: George Conrades, Art Bilger, Peter Morton, Joel S. Ehrenkranz
Directors of photography: Nicola B. Marsh, Graham Willoughby    
Editors: Jason Zeldes, Kevin Klauber    
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

No rating, 90 minutes