20 Feet From Stardom surprised a lot of people back in the beginning of March when it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature over the much revered and much touted The Act Of Killing. The film’s tagline is “meet the unsung heroes behind the greatest music of our time”, and the audience are taken on a historical journey accounting the fortunes of a handful of female backing vocalists from the sixties through to the present day. Singer Darlene Love acts as the piece’s central protagonist and woven in to her extraordinary story are tales of the careers of such singers as Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Claudia Lennear.
Whilst watching the documentary, what strikes one most about the music business is the fact that the thin line and decisions made between who takes centre stage and who remains a bit part player seem to be completely nonsensical and disregarding of specific talent. The audience are treated to an array of absolutely exceptional singing from the different women who have made their lives in the background, most of them equally as gifted as superstars like Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey or Diana Ross, and the narrative begs the question of why do some singers break away and become individual stars whilst others are left never to be household names but ultimately contribute more to the music business than their more famous peers ever do? A string of A-list talking heads including Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Bette Midler ponder this question and the main consensus seems to fall somewhere in between a lack of narcissism and egotistical drive, and preference for the joy of music over the politics and business of becoming a universal commodity. The documentary also pays reverence to the impact that the influx of black backing vocalists in the sixties had on the sound of nearly all musical genres from that point onwards. Darlene Love and The Blossoms paved the way for many more vocal groups to become involved in the recording industry, and we see how the distinct gospel, unshackled sound becomes a staple in the world of rock and roll, with David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker providing the women with glimpses of the spotlight and much deserved acclaim.
Though the concept of the film is initially engaging nonetheless, it truly is the charisma and star quality of its subjects that makes 20 Feet From Stardom an absolute must watch. The rise, fall and subsequent re-rise of Darlene Love is a story to captivate the hearts of even the most cynical of people. Once the cream of crop when it came to bringing a fresh, original sound to any record she contributed on, Love found herself out of the business and cleaning houses for a living after a spiteful dispute with controversial producer Phil Spector. It was upon hearing one of her own songs on the radio whilst cleaning a house that she decided to get back to where she belonged, and from the present day talent she displays in the documentary, it was the best decision she ever made. The film details the lives of a host of other singers, two in particular whom are especially engaging, Lisa Fischer and Claudia Lennear. Fischer’s story is one of the most endearing, boasting one of the most incredible singing voices I have ever heard and a Grammy award for her 1991 hit single ‘How Can I Ease The Pain’. Despite this award winning success, she never managed to fully emerge from her session vocalist roots and to this day is still a backing singer for, amongst others, The Rolling Stones. Claudia Lennear had great background success in the sixties and seventies as a singer for Ike and Tina Turner as well as a close friendship with Mick Jagger, but much like Lisa Fischer her solo career failed to fully take off and the documentary shows her, quite amazingly, in the present day as a high school Spanish teacher.
Though the documentary may sound melancholy in its depictions of failed solo careers and injustices for the outrageously talented individuals it portrays, the winning quality of 20 Feet From Stardom is the sheer joy that is so evident in these women when it comes to their love of music. One gets the feeling that some of them have too much respect for the magic of harmonies to become involved with the overly commercial worries of being a solo star, choosing instead to enhance everything they work on with their gifts. We are forever indebted to these unsung women, who without us realising it, have more of a presence in our music collections than we know. The film delights and surprises again and again with snippets of songs we thought we knew from back to front, the one missing part of our knowledge being the fact that the catchy hooks and spinal melodies are the work of one or more of the gloriously talented women with whom we have had the privilege of spending ninety minutes. 20 Feet From Stardom displays their humility, their unfortunate anonymity, their setbacks and their injustices, but one cannot help but leave the cinema in admiration of their dedication to the industry that had repeatedly denied them solo opportunity. A toast to the resilience of these amazing women, and to the voices that rise from them twenty feet away from the main microphone, the microphone at which they all deserve to be stood.