Twenty Feet from Stardom

We've heard them but we haven't necessarily 'heard of' these backup singers who shared the stage with some of the greatest.
Twenty Feet from Stardom

Image:  Marry Clayton, gospel singer best known for singing backing vocals on the Rolling Stones classic "Gimme Shelter".

They're the unsung heroes of the music industry – except, in their roles as back-up and background vocalists to the world's most popular artists, their contributions are quite literally heard. Their crooned oohs and aahs have added texture to all the great songs, and their belted-out overtures have become the refrains immersed in listeners’ brains; however their names remain unknown, with the spotlight never truly theirs to seek. For singers such as Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love, thus is life lived Twenty Feet from Stardom.

Director Morgan Neville (Troubadours) delves into a world so close to fame yet still so far from it, charting the careers of the women instrumental in the musical hits of the past half a century – only without the recognition. Clayton’s powerful voice enlivened The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, but it is not her star that shone the brightest in the song’s wake. Fischer won a Grammy, but her career was made supporting and touring with Tina Turner. Love worked with Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and Tom Jones, but her own shot at success was shuttered by Phil Spector. Theirs are not isolated incidents, nor the only ones of concern to the film. Indeed, behind every song of note stands a story about a background singer reaching for – but just missing – becoming something more.

Each tale, tracing music history in the process, and combining an extensive array of archival and contemporary footage as well as performances and talking-head interviews, is both heartening and heartbreaking; the former forever evident in the important role the women have played in the studio and on stage, the latter inescapable as their lives bobbed and weaved through the personal and professional consequences of their chosen profession. Striving for artistry but struggling with exploitation is a common thread, as the half dozen or so subjects share their recollections. Many of the performers reliant upon their support – Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Bette Midler among them – also add their perspectives.

As much as Twenty Feet from Stardom finally affords credit where it has long been overdue, giving the singers – Judith Hill, Jo Lawry, Gloria Jones, Tata Vega and Lynn Mabry included – their hard-earned, ever-emotional moments, it is perhaps the underlying narrative on the cruelty of celebrity that is the most cutting. Chasing a dream can come at a cost all-too-commonly overlooked. Achieving anything close to it – especially in the highly-sought-after world of entertainment – can be both a blessing and a curse.

Accordingly, Neville crafts a tribute laced with commentary – on the famous and the fleeting, the interplay of talent and luck, and, if only briefly, the role of race and gender in making it to the top. His ample feel-good moments may always remain the primary focus, escalating as he brings his subjects together in celebration, but the reality is unavoidable; in Twenty Feet from Stardom, that reality is the hope and horror that lurks amongst those cast in the shadows of elusive fame and fortune.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Twenty Feet from Stardom

Director: Morgan Neville           

US, 2013, 91 mins


Release date: November 21

Distributor:  Transmission

Rated: M

Sarah Ward

Friday 22 November, 2013

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay