20 Feet From Stardom is an extended hosanna to an undersung artist, the backup singer, and what a joyful noise it makes. To chart the creative contributions of so-often-anonymous session vocalists, filmmaker Morgan Neville – a longtime music-doc director (his CV includes television biographies of Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and Stax Records) – samples six decades of American pop-music history: from doo-wop and girl groups, Ray Charles’ Raelettes and producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, to the politically charged, nitty-gritty rock & roll years and on into the age of Auto-Tune, where demand for backup singers has waned considerably.
Neville collared some very big names to sit for his camera – Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Sting, to name a few – but it’s the nonhousehold names that hold our attention. Like Darlene Love, whose powerhouse vocals defined songs as diverse as “That’s Life,” “Monster Mash,” and “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss).” Or Merry Clayton, who supplied that epic wail in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Both women tried their hands at solo careers, but it didn’t take – blame the limited imagination of the industry (“there’s only one Aretha”), the fickleness of fate, or mismanagement. As for the latter, Spector – who signed Love and was, according to her, the instrument of her ruin – might worry over his unflattering portrayal here if that second-degree murder conviction hadn’t tanked his reputation already.
Crap pay and chronic lack of credit dogged all the backup singers, while drugs were the special undoing of some. 20 Feet From Stardom doesn’t shy away from the harder truths of the industry, but it goes down easily, and is stylishly assembled, spryly executed, and satisfyingly arced to end in triumph. The spotlight hasn’t dimmed yet: Since the film’s premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, a number of the film’s subjects have enjoyed a boost in recognition, which should continue with last month’s release of a movie soundtrack that packages classics and newly recorded songs. The new material – threaded throughout the film in beautifully shot in-studio sequences – nails what’s so great, and so feel-good, about 20 Feet From Stardom: It both celebrates the unheralded individual and uplifts the special aural alchemy that’s created when many individual voices blend together as one.