Finally, a film that shines a light on a supporting cast-and, man, can they sing! Twenty Feet From Stardom tells the stories of several backup vocalists for the greatest rock and pop acts of our time. Legends like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Madonna and Stevie Wonder appear in this moving and joyous documentary, but they’re only there to sing the praises of the until-now-little-known talents who helped create their sound.
Vocal powerhouses with names like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Tata Vega are finally getting the limelight they deserve, thanks to director Morgan Neville (Troubadours), who interviewed more than 50 people for his film. Mostly women, the backup singers featured typically came from religious choir backgrounds and often had better solo voices than their leads. Merry Clayton, for instance, is the voice behind the haunting “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” refrain in the Rolling Stones’ hit “Gimme Shelter.” Some of the singers, like Darlene Love, who did much of her early work for Phil Spector (who frequently failed to credit her), aspired to a solo career. Others, like Lisa Fischer, are more comfortable behind the scenes. They all have compelling personalities and dramatic tales to tell: Love spent several years working as a maid to support herself before she returned to music and was finally inducted into the Music Hall of Fame in 2011, and Judith Hill, who sang backup for Michael Jackson, landed a second chance after his death with a spot on Season 4 of The Voice. All of them offer commanding, standing-ovation-worthy performances in Twenty Feet and prove that the gift of talent doesn’t necessary translate into stardom or fame. (And in some cases that’s a good thing.)
While the documentary, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is creating interest anew in the work of the singers, there’s also talk that the group may come together for a fall tour. That’s a ticket I would buy in a heartbeat. Watch the video below of current Elton John backup singer Tata Vega, who performed a cappella after AARP’s Twenty Feet From Stardom screening at Life @50+ Las Vegas, and tell me you agree!