Movie review: ‘Twenty Feet from Stardom’ brings background singers into the limelight

Background singers work in the shadows of the world’s biggest stars just feet away from the spotlight.  Asked to sway behind a microphone and harmonize ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ behind famous vocalists, backup singers are often forgotten.  Morgan Neville’s documentary, “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” brilliantly depicts the changing roles of background singers in American music.  It showcases the talent of powerhouse individuals who willingly adopt a profession that keeps them one step away from fame.

To capture the film, Neville was offered a theoretical backstage pass into the lives of the singers and those they work with.  He interviewed A-list celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Sting to give credit to the unheralded talents of their background singers: Charlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and others. Throughout the film, Neville highlights the trials and triumphs of the women’s careers, comparing these ups and downs to cultural movements that had a lasting effect on the music industry from the 1960s to the present day.

This film is fascinating as it exposes an overlooked piece of music history. The majority of the backup singers in the film are African American. Neville not only touches on the women’s struggles as singers but also on their development through the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

The film’s sensational soundtrack is a compilation of wonderful classics from every decade by artists such as Luther Vandross, Joe Cocker and many more.  With a countless number of old video clips of monumental concerts and musical performances, this music itself reveals the importance of the background singer in the 20th century.

There is a stereotype that background singers are just aspiring solo artists, so one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the message that these singers love their profession.  Many of the women have voices that are better than those in the spotlight and did at one time attempt solo careers.  Contrary to the hit or miss nature of branching out on their own, being a backup singer allows them steady opportunities to do what they love: according to the film, singer Lisa Fischer has sung background on every tour for the Rolling Stones since 1987.

As noted by Neville, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” is the first piece of documentation that really explores the world of background singers. Neville successfully completed his goal of alerting the public to the ups and downs of this largely mysterious profession and allotting these gifted individuals the attention they deserve.

Like the talented vocalists Neville profiled, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” deserves the utmost praise.  The film will be released in theaters nationwide in the summer of 2013.   This documentary is worth a trip to the theater for all music lovers and for those who simply enjoy an excellent documentary.

Natalie Helms

About the Author Natalie Helms

As a science and agricultural journalism major and eager freshman, I am excited to begin my writing career at the University of Missouri. I am from a large suburb south of Chicago called Orland Park, and I am the first in my family to travel to Missouri for school, let alone major in an agriculture-related field unusual for my urban/suburban background. As a writer for CAFNR Corner Post, I hope to provide the CAFNR community with credible and intriguing information while acquiring the necessary skills for success in the science and agricultural journalism industry.