20 Feet from Stardom: Oscar Winning Docu about Unsung Heroes and Heroines–Backup Singers

Living up to its apt title, the intriguing musical documentary, “20 Feet from Stardom,” relates the untold story of unsung heroes, the backup singers behind the legends of many pop music icons.

The feature is directed by Morgan Neville, an Emmy-award winner of other docus, who clearly loves his subjects as he shows empathy and sympathy for their positions, past and present. Neville provides a sharply observant look at such divergent but interrelated issues as the culture of stardom and celebrity, the craft and art of singing, the role of luck and hard work in making (or unmaking careers). That the docu deals with age, race and gender (many of the performers are black women) make it all the more relevant to our times.

No doubt, the background-singing of these women have turned some good songs into classic hits and some talented rock stars into legendary icons. Mixing newly gathered information and existing archival footage, Neville offers quite an interesting picture of the individuals who have lent their powerful voices backing famous bands and solo legendary singers, such as Mick Jagger and Sting.

What does it take to cross those (close and yet long) 20 feet in order to become a legit star. What factors account for the fact that some performers traverse the distance, while others never do. The road to major stardom and center stage is not as easy or accessible as it might seem.

Luck (the hand of fate) and hard work may represent only some of the crucial variables, as is the case of Darlene Love, who backed, among others, the legendary Aretha Franklin. Then there is the issue of age: After a certain point, the chances of becoming a lead singer—a music star—diminish rapidly. Michael Jackson’s last backup singer, Judith Hill, is still young enough to determinedly pursue her dream of superstardom.

In focusing on the backing singer, Neville shows great understanding of success and failure, big and small talents, and the role of chance—being the right person at the right place at the right time. Some of the interviewees (men included) admit that becoming a background singer had rescued them from obscurity, even if they did not reach their ultimate goal to become front singers.
There are original interviews with Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Sting and Bruce Springsteen. As a young femme, Darlene Love provided support for the likes of Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick and Frank Sinatra, but she soon acquired the label of a backup singer. Love claims that her career was shaped and then damaged by Phil Spector, the “Wall of Sound” producer. At one point, Spector had asked her to “ghost” perform the vocals for other singers who were then credited with her work.

Merry Clayton, a preacher’s daughter acknowledges the importance of church choirs as training. From her vocal work on Carole King’s legendary “Tapestry” album to a recording session for Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Clayton has blended with the greatest pop stars. Lisa Fischer continues to tour with the Stones, but Tata Vega went from an upcoming Motown star to years of uncertainty.

For Fischer, backup singing is not a second-rate art for, or means to a higher goal: “I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more. I love supporting other artists. Some people will do anything to be famous. I just wanted to sing.”

Ultimately, “20 Feet from Stardom” is a poignant chronicle of the evolution of the background singers as a socio-artistic phenomenon, which is worth attending to.


The movie won the 2013 Best Documentary Feature Oscar.



Released by Radius-TWC
Production company: A Gil Friesen and Tremolo Production
Director: Morgan Neville
Producers: Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers
Executive Producers: George Conrades, Art Bilger, Peter Morton, Joel S. Ehrenkranz
Directors of photography: Nicola B. Marsh, Graham Willoughby
Editors: Jason Zeldes, Kevin Klauber

Running time: 90 Minutes