'20 Feet' elevates those often in background
We've sung along with their parts, often the catchiest hooks in the most popular songs of the day.
Now, in the massively entertaining and heartfelt documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” audiences meet the most memorable voices in the world of backup singers. They perform with world-famous musical acts, but theirs are not household names. Their stories, however, are inspiring, heartbreaking and enthralling.
Director Morgan Neville intersperses concert footage with intimate interviews in a rousing celebration of these unsung heroes and their nimble vocal instruments. As they reflect on career joys, sacrifices and conflicts, the singers compellingly discuss race, gender, artistry and ambition.
Several African-American singers were ministers' daughters, and gospel traditions informed their soulful sounds. “Think about Lou Reed and ‘Walk on the Wild Side,' that iconic song with the line that makes a lot of people uncomfortable because it says ‘colored girls,' ” says Janice Pendarvis, who has sung with Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. “But what is he referencing? The fact that there's a power to these women that stand on stage and sing with the guys.”
Darlene Love, 70, endured some devastating setbacks after beginning her career at age 18. Groomed as a lead singer by Phil Spector, her un-credited voice was used in top hits of the '60s.
“It's pretty debilitating to the spirit to see somebody else on television lip-syncing to the song you recorded,” Love says.
When her career faltered, she cleaned houses for a living. Her buoyant charm and infectious laugh jump off the screen.
Then there's Merry Clayton, one of Ray Charles' Raelettes and the haunting vocal force belting out “Rape, murder! It's just a shot away,” on the Rolling Stones' ‘Gimme Shelter.' She reminisces about how the band came to pick her up at home in the middle of the night. She was pregnant, in pajamas and getting ready to go to bed.
Once they got to the studio, “I said to myself, ‘I'm going to blow them out of this room,' ” she says.
As the women reminisce, Neville finds the perfect archival performances to bring those memories to life. The stars they perform with — Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting — chime in, rounding out anecdotes and singing the praises of the voices that bolster their own. The film ponders the vagaries of the business, as well as innate talent.
“To me there's no more heavenly instrument than the voice,” says Sheryl Crow, who was once a backup singer for Michael Jackson, Don Henley and others stars. “There are so many great singers who are such a massive presence on so many rock records, people whose names we don't necessarily know, but who had a huge impact.”
That's the beauty of this exquisite documentary — now we know their names and can celebrate their contributions.
Claudia Puig is a staff writer for USA Today.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Review: ‘A Most Violent Year’ speaks softly, carries much menace
- Review: Cotillard shines in Dardennes’ moving social drama
- Review: A tired gimmick weakens thriller ‘Project Almanac’
- Review: ‘Black or White’ finds dramatic promise in the grey areas of American race relations
- Review: Law can’t manage to keep ‘Black Sea’ afloat
- ‘Let It Snow’ filming in Millvale
- DVD reviews: ‘The Judge,’ ‘Fury’ and ‘The Book of Life’
- Pittsburgh-set ‘Me and Earl’ big at Sundance, gets distribution deal
- Film review: ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ draws heartfelt laughs, tears
- Jennifer Lopez: ‘Artist in me wants more freedom’