According to Judith Hill, the aspiring star whose vocals have accompanied Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Elton John, backup singing is a great springboard to fame. However this springboard, she notes, can rapidly turn to quick sand. The gap between the back-up mics and centrestage is insurmountable as proven by the subjects of Director Morgan Neville’s bittersweet documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom.
The film focuses on a number of mainly black, female vocalists whose unique contributions helped form the basis of modern day rock’n’roll. Through an exploration of the careers of Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer and Claudia Lennear the audience is taken on a journey through music history – involving some fantastic stock footage and interviews with Mick Jagger, Sting and Bruce Springsteen among others.
The stories of the music industry and our subjects’ struggle to make it in their own right are revealing and, at times, heartbreaking. The plight of Merry Clayton – whose distinctive vocals make ears bleed on The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ – who tells us about the harsh realities she faced while reflecting on her attempts to launch a solo career, is particularly confronting. So too is the tale of Darlene Love’s professional relationship with the ill fated, controlling and seemingly manipulative producer Phil Spector. Combined, their stories demonstrate the perils of this often-unforgiving industry.
Still despite these hardships, it’s moving to see these women celebrating their triumphs and telling their stories to a wider audience. Although it feels a touch long at 91 minutes, 20 Feet From Stardom is an uplifting, poignant expose into the lives of individuals who, even though their names never truly rang out, have made an undeniable contribution to rock’n’roll culture.
BY LEE HUTCHISON
20 Feet From Stardom is in cinemas now.