20 FEET FROM STARDOM
The untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century; the unsung voices who brought shape and style to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonising with others.
Review by Louise Keller:
A life affirming, toe-tapping documentary that not only places the magnifying glass on back-up singers, their role and music, but examines the music scene and its icons during the past 50 years. Morgan Neville's film introduces us to singers whose names may not be familiar, but whose music sound is as comfortable and familiar as our favourite slippers. 'The walk to the front is complicated,' says Bruce Springsteen at the outset, but the thrust of the film is far more complex, as it marries the relationship between the singer, the back-up artist and 'the sound' they are striving to achieve. The sound is much more than just the vocals, as artists and their back-up singers weave together the magical tapestry that becomes the music for which they are known.
Wonderful archive footage of Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones and Tom Jones in full flight are interwoven with interviews of Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, who talk about the women on whom the film focuses and their considerable, unique talents.
The Blossoms were the first black back-up singers in the 60s and their lead vocalist Darlene Love provided vocals for many well known stars including Frank Sinatra and Dionne Warwick. They created a new sound and music producer Phil Spector used her voice but credited other singers for her performance on various occasions. We hear plenty from Darlene as well as Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, Lisa Fisher and others who share their vast experiences and philosophies. The anecdotes are extraordinary. I especially like the one that Merry Clayton tells about the night the Rolling Stones wanted a girl singer at 2am for their recording of Gimme Shelter. A raunchy voice was required to wail the lyrics 'Rape, murder; it's just a shot away'. She arrived at the session with curlers in her hair wearing silk pyjamas.
Judith Hill, who was backup singer on Michael Jackson's This is It Tour and performed at Jackson's memorial service is one singer who has aspirations to make it to the front of the stage as the star. Her anecdote recounting the time when she accepted a role as back-up singer for Kylie Minogue, wearing a straight hair wig, is hilarious.
We become involved in the lives of all the women but ultimately the film is about the music and the sound that the voices - the ultimate instruments - can make. Blending harmonies and creating a sound is like a spiritual journey. The voice is compared to a feather that simply floats. Having had the privilege of providing backing vocals to singing stars such as Rosemary Clooney and Lou Rawls back in the 70s, I have special interest in the topic. But this film is not just for aficionados, it is a rich and wonderful experience that involves us, makes us laugh, cry, remember as well as understand the journey.
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20 FEET FROM STARDOM (PG)
PRODUCER: Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers
DIRECTOR: Morgan Neville
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Nicola Marsh, Graham Willoughby
EDITOR: Douglas Blush, Kevin Klauber, Jason Zeldes
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 21, 2013