Often the best documentaries are about subjects you’re kind of aware of in the background of your life, but you’ve never really thought that much about them. Indeed that’s almost the definition of the subjects of 20 Feet From Stardom – the back-up singers who’ve featured on all sorts of well-known songs, but whose name rarely gets on the record cover.
For example, the documentary features the guy who provided the opening riff of The Lion King. And you can call me an idiot, but it was the first time I’d actually thought that someone actually had to record what has become one of the most famous opening moments in cinema, and we’ve never seen his face.
20 Feet From Stardom is full of moments like that, where you get to meet people where you know all sorts of things they’ve sung, even if you’ve never seen their face before.
That would be interesting enough in itself, but the documentary is carefully structured to show you not just the people, but the importance of their story. For example, it covers the move in the late-50s and early-60s from rather sterile white female backing singers to young black women who brought style and personality to the music. In doing so they helped bring the type of gospel call-and-answer singing that changed music forever.
Many of the people covered did have solo careers at one point or another, but for whatever reason it never took off – and it’s clear from the documentary that even those in the business aren’t 100% sure why some hit it big and others don’t. So instead these people became legends in the background, often specifically requested by the biggest acts but rarely getting the spotlight themselves.
Probably the most famous of these is Darlene Love, who film fans will know as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon series. As a singer she had a number 1’s in 1962 with He’s A Rebel, but rather than her name on the record sleeve it was credited to a girl group she wasn’t part of. She’s also the voice of the well-known festive song ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’, which producer Phil Spector took credit for. She can be heard on Monster Mash, Da Doo Ron Ron, Sinatra’s That’s Life and hundreds more – but all in a way where she rarely got the credit she derserves.
Love’s is just one of the stories in 20 Feet From Stardom, which covers backing singers from the 50s right up to the present, giving a fascinating look at this ignored profession. It’s backed up with a range on interviews with the likes of Bette Midler, Sting, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and many more, some of whom started out singing back-up themselves but all of whom are happy to pay tribute to the other voices who’ve appeared on their records.
The Academy obviously agreed it’s a fascinating subject, as 20 Feet From Stardom was given the Best Documentary Oscar, and deservedly so.
Overall Verdict: 20 Feet From Stardom is worth watching just for the ‘So that’s who sang that!’ moments, but it’s also a fascinating trip into an unsung world of far greater cultural importance than you’d ever suspect.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac