You’ve heard their voices, but never their names. You’ve recognized their trills, but never their talent. You’ve heard their souls, but never their stories.
They are the backup singers on hundreds of famous records. They support the names in flashing lights, from Mick Jagger to Sting, Bruce Springsteen to Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles to Michael Jackson.
They are girls from ordinary backgrounds, living their lives beneath the shadows of stars. They are Darlene Love, Gloria Jones, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, and so many others. They are the stories of Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet From Stardom, an entrancing documentary that traces the lives of Motown’s backup singers and their struggle for the spotlight.
The film paints a remarkable picture of the talent that is left unseen by the world. Artists like Darlene Love, the starring voice of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” are ignored by record labels and fans. Instead, these women remain in the backgrounds, singing their hearts into dusty mikes when the studio is closed and quiet.
Twenty Feet explores the rise and fall of backup singers, and the ways their lives have shifted over the shape of their careers. Some of the women gave up early. Some of them tried (and failed) to start sufficient solo careers. Others are content singing backup, just so long as they are making the music they so adore.
Each of these stories are told in stunning clarity, getting close and personal. There are interviews with huge names in the music industry, such as trumpeter Chris Botti and superstar Mick Jagger. And there are intimate interviews with each of the backup singers, as they tell their emotional stories from start to finish.
But most of all, there is music. There is heartbreaking and hilarious music. There are focused recordings, where the ladies pour their voices into a solo. There are one-on-one studio sessions, where Tata Vega or Lisa Fischer trill until their voices break from emotion. Their voices are real and the talent is palpable. Yet, the world continues to ignore them.
But, for the most part, they don’t mind. Artists such as Judith Hill, who was to sing a duet with Michael Jackson on his “This Is It” tour before his tragic death, remain hopeful. One scene depicts Hill sitting at her piano, pressing gently into the keys, singing notes like they’re simply an afterthought. Depicting the love of music is what Twenty Feet does best.
“Singing is sharing,” one backup singer says. Twenty Feet From Stardom paints that shared passion perfectly. These ladies are not forgotten, nor are they lost amongst the records.
They are merely the man behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz. They are the people who, secretly, make the magic really happen.
By Lauren Puckett