Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'20 Feet from Stardom' Is a Fascinating Look at Backup Singers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'20 Feet from Stardom' Is a Fascinating Look at Backup Singers

Article excerpt

The title of the wonderful documentary "20 Feet From Stardom" can be taken literally. Morgan Neville's film is about a cross section of female backup singers who, though uniformly glorious, reap little glory with the public. Their pipes are in many cases every bit as startling and powerful as the headliners they back, so the question the film asks is, Why aren't these women - among them, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, and Judith Hill - stars in their own right?

The answers are complicated and variable. For an artist like Lisa Fischer, who won a Grammy in 1992 for her first single, "How Can I Ease the Pain," the hothouse of stardom simply didn't fit who she was. Of all the women interviewed in the film, she seems most comfortable with being a backup singer - for the late Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Alicia Keys, The Rolling Stones, Chaka Khan, and many others.

Her situation is very different from that of the legendary Darlene Love, who was a staple in Phil Spector's stable - you can hear her loud and clear on "Da Doo Ron Ron" - before, according to her, he helped sabotage her solo career. (She sang the lead, uncredited, on the hit "He's A Rebel," by The Crystals.) For years she worked as a cleaning lady before resuming her career in the 1980s.

Then there's Merry Clayton, now 64, who indelibly screams out "rape, murder - it's just a shot away" in the infernal Rolling Stones anthem "Gimme Shelter." And the mesmerizing Judith Hill, at 29 the youngest of the singers profiled, who sang at Michael Jackson's funeral (she was supposed to accompany his final tour) and was recently voted off NBC's "The Voice" singing competition in what is surely one of the more boneheaded decisions in TV history.

This is one music documentary that isn't simply a glorified concert film, though there are plenty of performances to savor. Neville has made many first-rate music documentaries (most recently "Troubadours") and the late A&M Records executive Gil Friesen acted as the producer, which surely contributed to the film's savviness. …

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