20 Feet From Stardom • Anchor Bay Entertainment • 91 minutes •US DVD Release Date: January 14, 2014
Executive Producers: George Conrades, Art Bilger, Peter Morton & Joel S. Ehrenkranz; Director: Morgan Neville; Producer: Gil Friesen
20 Feet From Stardom is a music documentary that shines a light on the oft-unheralded beings of the music industry: the background vocalists. Music without background vocalists – particularly back-in-the-day – would’ve have been incredibly plain; blasé. Personally, I believe that background vocals are like the frosting on a cake. To be an exceptional recording or to have a truly moving, authentic performance, the background vocalists truly aid in propelling musical momentum forward. That same vital part of the music arrangement though, has been unfairly overlooked over the years, particularly when many background vocalists historically have had solo career capable voices. The aforementioned documentary serves the purpose of telling the untold story of the background vocalist, a viewed through the eyes of famed backing vocalists Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, and Voice contest/Michael Jackson back-up singer Judith Hill.
The documentary gives a historical account of background vocals and how the role of the background vocalist evolved. That historical account exceptionally begins with the white background vocalists who merely read the musical score accurately, to the evolution of black background vocalists taking freer, more emotional roles. Most interesting is how much British rock truly enhanced the role of the background vocalist, particularly artists like The Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker. Being a musician and being so knowledgeable about music, I found much of this history to be quite educational, teaching me things I hadn’t previously researched or was ‘green’ about. The musicological aspects of 20 Feet From Stardom are top-notch.
Also included within 20 Feet To Stardom are the struggles of the background vocalist – the plight if you will – particularly those wishing to breakthrough. Darlene Love’s powerful vocals were featured on numerous albums and singles throughout the 1960s, but often credited to someone else. Merry Clayton, a commanding ‘lead’ background vocalist (called a “diva” by her contemporaries in the film), recorded three solo albums, but despite a high level of quality, they failed commercially. Lisa Fischer tasted success, managing to win a Grammy in the process, before the horrid sophomore album slump killed the vibe. Fischer admits, “I waited too long.” As for newbie Judith Hill, she tries to avoid background vocal gigs given her pursuit of being a legit solo artist (and an appearance on NBC’s The Voice), but admits she has to take background vocal gigs to support her dreams.
Going along with that ‘plight’ of the background vocalist, 20 Feet From Stardom explains the reason for a lack of success, taken from the perspective of established artists and the background vocalists themselves. It all seems to deal with the notion of truly having that “hunger” and the “drive” to promote yourself at any cost. It truly makes people think truly evaluate the question, “what lengths will you go to become a star”?
Finally, 20 Feet From Stardom highlights the artistry and abilities of each of the background vocalists. Performances and clips of each background vocalist are included to continue to ‘give flowers’ to those unfairly underrated. This aspect of the documentary showcases just how exceptional each of these women were, despite not achieving the solo success each should.
Ultimately, 20 Feet From Stardom educates us all about how tough it truly can be to accomplish a dream. It also expresses that merely being talented is not always enough ‘fuel for the fire’ to truly be successful. As realistically depressing and discouraging as that sounds, for the truly hungry musician, this documentary should encourage one to never be passive in achieving your dreams.