Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom tells the story of the (mainly) black female singers who provided backing vocals for some of the most famous names in soul and rock music: the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Cocker, to name a few. It’s an entertaining and often engrossing film. Unlike say jazz or rock, there are surprisingly few films about soul music – Standing in the Shadows of Motown from 2002 and last year’s Muscle Shoals are two rare examples of soul documentaries – so this is a welcome addition.
It takes a look at the lives and careers of long-overlooked veterans of the soul-music scene, including singers like Darlene Love, who worked with Phil Spector in the early 1960s, Merry Clayton, who backed the Rolling Stones for many years, as well as Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, who are working as backing singers today. Many of them are big, colourful characters who make you wonder how they ever took a backseat role to anyone. Some of the subjects are also very modest, if extremely talented, and had or have little desire to be in the spotlight.
At the heart of the film is the question of failure and success. Why do some artists enjoy glittering careers and worldwide acclaim while others fade into the background? Why do some, in the case of Darlene Love, give it all up and find themselves cleaning houses? When you hear what some of these unsung singers are capable of, it’s clear that success is rarely a matter of who is the most talented.
Was it simply a case of bad luck for some singers? Did they simply not get the right breaks, or did they just lack something – the single-mindedness or pop star-sized ego required to make it? As Bruce Springsteen says at the beginning of the film ‘It’s a bit of a walk… that walk to the front is complicated…’. Or is the reason these singers never made it to the top to be found in the conservatism, and possibly even the racism, of the record industry?
Undoubtedly the record industry overlooked and ignored black performers. This was the case until the 1980s when Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston (whose mother Cissy was a backing singer for Elvis) changed the game. As one talking head in the film suggests, the attitude of record executives back then was ‘we’ve already got one Aretha, why do we need another?’. Darlene Love, whose story is at the centre of the film, has plenty she could be bitter about, though she’s never less than magnanimous when she recalls her experiences.