20 Feet From Stardom: Background Singers in the Spotlight

20 Feet From Stardom

Opens Fri., June 28 at Guild 45th. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.

Who dreams of being a backup singer? Our culture is made for the star, the frontman, the diva—with or without Auto-Tune. This might be why 20 Feet From Stardom, an otherwise delightful documentary, is tinged with an air of disappointment. Meeting the full-throated likes of Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, and Lisa Fischer, we understand these are masters of their craft. But the question nags: If they are masters, why aren’t they stars?

20 Feet engages that question, although somehow it’s a shame we have to ask it. Why wouldn’t it be enough to make a nice living, meet interesting people, and bring beautiful song into the world? If the soulful Fischer doesn’t have the killer instinct it takes to sacrifice everything for the spotlight, maybe she’s got it figured out. The film includes some who made the leap, including Darlene Love and Sheryl Crow, but the focus is mostly on the folks who’ve made a career out of being in the background. Like the 2002 doc Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it’s got a built-in hook: all that great music, served with annotations from musicians.

The stories are good, including accounts of the night Clayton joined the Rolling Stones to add her astonishing vocal to “Gimme Shelter,” a track that still stands as the backup vocalist’s brass ring: stealing a song from the lead. Mick Jagger, interviewed here, takes it all in stride. Other luminaries weigh in: Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting. But there we go again, tracking the stars when this is about the foot soldiers. And it’s their show, delightfully so, even if director Morgan Neville doesn’t organize the material in a way that feels entirely intuitive. Despite the choppiness, the prime footage from George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh or Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads concert doc Stop Making Sense is exciting.

It’s all about the blend of voices, as we hear when Love reunites with her former choir-mates for impromptu vocalizing. Well, not entirely the voices: Certainly Ike Turner had more in mind when he put the Ikettes in skimpy outfits behind his wife Tina, thus ensuring that future generations of backup singers would have to shimmy as well as sing. Nostalgia isn’t the only note. Judith Hill, who sang with Michael Jackson, must make decisions: If she accepts supporting jobs now, how will people think of her as a solo artist? It’s a long way from the Ikettes, but the stigma remains.

film@seattleweekly.com

 
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