Most famous bands and singers have used backup singers who are as talented — if not more talented — than the stars they are backing up.  The backup singers’ voices are always heard and they are usually seen because of their close proximity to the featured singers when they are on stage or in the studio, sometimes standing “20 Feet From Stardom.”  This documentary focuses on a few standouts of the world of backup singers.

Darlene Love, Stephanie Alexander, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Tata Vega are some of the vocal talents that writer/director Morgan Neville shines the spotlight on.  Most of their lives follow almost the same pattern: they come from a musical background, singing in churches, working as backup singers at a young age, getting respect for their tremendous talent, finding modest success as background singers and struggling to reach the pinnacle of the music business as solo artists.

One memorable, movie moment of “20 Feet From Stardom” is the scene when Love gives up on her singing and takes jobs cleaning houses.  Then one day, as she is cleaning one house, she hears her song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio.  At that point she makes up her mind to follow through with her singing career, and after many years of hard work, the success that has been so elusive is finally hers.

The most memorable, movie moment of “20 Feet From Stardom” is the scene of Lisa Fischer doing background vocals on a live performance of “Gimme Shelter” with the Rolling Stones in 1995.   Her performance is brilliant…perfect.   Only a few seconds is shown, so I suggest you go on youtube and watch a rare example of a live performance outshining the studio version.

It’s a shame that many of the background singers who are extremely talented do not find fame and fortune; but as Sting mentions in this movie, being a great singer doesn’t necessarily bring wealth and fame.   Many factors come into play.  This is so true.  Many famous, successful singers within the last 10 years don’t have the vocal quality of a Merry Clayton or Lisa Fischer, which is why so many use backing vocal tracks and other audio manipulations to hide the imperfections in their voices.

Financial success doesn’t always come to those who deserve it the most.  That’s one harsh aspect of life.  But once in a while, someone who deserves to make it big does make it big.  So to all those talented dreamers out there: keep going for it, because as long as you keep trying, you’ll always have a chance to get what you want.   Failure is guaranteed only when you give up.

— M