20 Feet from Stardom
Directed by Morgan Neville
This aptly named film is another documentary that shines a light on a neglected piece of music history. Like Standing in the Shadows of Motown did for the Funk Brothers—the musical collective that played on all those classics from the famed Detroit label—20 Feet From Stardom gives a voice to the back-up singers who’ve performed on stage and on record with Ray Charles, Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Sting, Michael Jackson and innumerable others.
It’s not surprising that just about everyone featured here started off singing gospel, whose exuberance and call-and-response both influenced and provided good training for the secular worlds of R&B and rock. Early shots of Ray Charles and his Raelettes leads into footage of Phil Spector and his stable of singers, who performed interchangeably on his records. Things speed up when we glimpse Ike and Tina Turner and the Ikettes, all of whom seem to be shaking and shimmying faster than humanly possible.
The movie features Darlene Love, who speaks frankly about her rise, fall and comeback, including her recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as Merry Clayton, whose dramatic wail almost overshadowed Jagger on “Gimme Shelter”; Joe Cocker and Leon Russell veteran Claudia Lennear; and Lisa Fischer, a stalwart on Stones tours for more than 20 years. Their stories are sad, hopeful and far from the rags-to-riches fantasy world of American Idol (one younger singer here, Judith Hill, was even voted off The Voice). Yet, as one participant observes, if they didn’t make it to the top, they didn’t suffer the pitfalls of massive fame either, and their spirit and love for what they do carries the film to a memorable conclusion: Love and her sisters-in-back-up doing a stunning “Lean on Me.”
Opens June 14