20 Feet From Stardom Blu-ray Review
Back-up singers have always been the unsung heroes in the music business. They provide the vital background that a song needs. While the lead singer gets all the glory, you were probably humming along to the chorus with the background singers. 20 FEET FROM STARDOM explores several famous back-up singers to tell their story. This is a fascinating documentary that can educate you a bit about the music business and give you better appreciation of the people behind the scenes so to speak.
Director Morgan Neville has a good handle on the material as he weaves from the past to the present day. Neville interviewed many back-up singers for this piece and provided much insight in how the process works. “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed is a prime example of the importance of back-up singers with the way they bridged various points to the song. Another thing learned in the film is that many of the back-up singers came from a church background either with them singing in the choir or their parents directly involved.
Darlene Love was one of the trailblazing back-up singers. She was part of the session group called The Blossoms. During the early 60s background singers were primarily white. Love explained that these singers would know how to read the music, but didn’t put their soul into it. That is where she and the Blossoms come into play. They didn’t know how to read music. They relied on their ears on how they would attack a song. This was a new way of doing things and it turned out to be quite successful. She ended up working with diverse people like Elvis, Sam Cooke and The Beach Boys among others. I especially liked the story about her involvement with eccentric producer Phil Spector. Spector was infamously known to be quite hands on with production and wanting things just the right way. Spector used Love’s lead vocals on “He’s a Rebel” and put it under The Crystals name. You could tell this was still a sore subject with Love as she was under contract with Spector and couldn’t get out of it. It pretty much forced her into retirement for several years because of it. That’s the dark side of the music business that’s been told many times of bad contracts and dirty dealings. Love had the last laugh though as she was recented inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Another key player featured is Merry Clayton (she got her unique first name by being born on Christmas). Clayton’s big claim to fame is her vocals on “Gimme Shelter”, the hit Rolling Stones song. That was another fascinating story drawn out by Neville. Clayton and lead singer Mick Jagger alternate in telling the tale of the creation of this classic song. Jagger was wowed by her powerhouse vocals and her ability to come in late at night in her curlers. It is an image that will stick to you on how songs are put together. Clayton wasn’t the first choice for the song, so success can be random at times and the luck of the draw.
Lisa Fischer is a bit younger than both Clayton and Love. She’s just as accomplished though. She’s worked with Sting, Luther Vandross and the last 25 years with the Rolling Stones. Fischer actually branched out and released a solo album that netted her a Grammy. The next album took too long to make and her solo career fizzled. Love and Clayton had also dipped their toes into the solo waters with varied success. None of them quite made it big by themselves that they should have judging by the talent on display here.
The last main player featured by Neville was Judith Hill. She is just starting out in her career. She first came into focus as a back-up singer to Michael Jackson before his untimely death. The solo fame has eluded her so far, but her path is unwritten.
Another great thing about the documentary is the interviews with such stars as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler, Sheryl and archived footage of Ray Charles, Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson. All sing the praises of the back-up singers and their importance to songs and how they rely on them quite a bit. It reinforces the notion of their legacy.
20 FEET FROM STARDOM is a great documentary that honestly is educational, moving and has some great music and singing in it.
20 FEET FROM STARDOM BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: The video is not as important as the sound in this case. But it still is presented in a clear fashion.
Audio: The sound is impeccable. You hear the beautiful pristine voices in such wonderful clarity.
Deleted Scenes (29:00): There are 12 in all. It gives more background on Judith Hill. Jo Lawry also is given a lot more screen time here. Her importance to Sting is practically wiped away in the final cut. Other back-up singers talk about their schedule and why they do what they do.
The Buddy System (8:52): This feature talks about the friendship and competiveness among the back-up singers. The singers that aren’t featured as much in the documentary are more in focus here
Times Talks: Q&A with Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Director Morgan Neville (29:54): Jon Pareles interviews these four principals. They discuss their careers, their involvement with various producers and their vocal styles.