20 Feet from Stardom, 90 mins, rated CTC*, opens 21 November 2013


(This is my review as published in the November 2013 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

In 2002, the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown celebrated the music of the Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit musicians who backed dozens of Motown recording artists. These men (and they were all men) were the unsung geniuses behind scores of hits  in the 1960s and 70s, and the film at last gave them due recognition.

20 Feet from Stardom, a documentary feature film directed by Morgan Neville, now does the same thing for the backup singers who brought harmony, texture and depth to star performances from the 1960s right up to the present day. These musicians (mostly women) are largely unknown, yet many have at least as much talent as the artists credited with the hit records. It’s about time someone told their story.

In the film we meet singers such as Darlene Love (the voice behind Phil Spector’s girl group, The Crystals), Merry Clayton (who provided, at a memorable midnight recording session, the striking wails for the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter), Lisa Fischer, who now tours with the Rolling Stones, and Australia’s own Jo Lawry, who backs up Sting. We also hear from the front men and women, including Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler and Sheryl Crowe (who was once a backup singer herself).

Bruce Springsteen is remarkably perceptive. Early in the film he talks about the “walk to the front” of the stage, and the kind of courage, determination, and ego (and sometimes luck) needed to get to  centre-stage.  “It’s complicated,” Springsteen says, raising the central puzzle of this film: why aren’t these women household names?

Director Neville has produced and directed many documentaries, mostly about popular musicians and the movies. He does a competent job on this behind-the-scenes film, but he doesn’t quite tell the whole story . There is little here about the money generated by pop and rock music, and who gets what. Of course, the recording companies are reluctant to reveal their secrets, and if the filmmakers did, the companies would be unlikely to let them use the music. There are also the non-disclosure clauses in the contracts of the performers, which are often enforced by withholding royalties and other payments.

And the film only lightly touches on the way these singers were treated. Some were badly abused by producers: Phil Spector thought nothing of using Darlene Love’s voice as the lead voice of The Crystals and some other of his girl groups, and giving her no credit (or royalties) for a string of hit singles, so that the voice behind “He’s a Rebel” found herself at one point cleaning houses for a living.

Some singers were treated like possessions: Dr Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California, tells us that Ike Turner saw himself as the pimp of his wife, Tina Turner, and their backing group, the Ikettes.

The last part of the film attempts to answer the question that Springsteen raised at the start: why do so few backup singers make it as soloists? It does so mostly by asking the stars. Springsteen explains again that it’s not enough to have a great voice. Everything else must come together. Sting agrees: “It’s not a level playing field… It’s about circumstance, luck...  The best people realize that and deal with it.” Producer Lou Adler is baffled by Merry Clayton’s lack of solo success. She made three albums with Adler, but, as he says, “We did everything possible and it just didn’t take”.

The film ends rather abruptly, having raised the worrying possibility that the future of music, being digital, may completely exclude the need for backup singers. We are also left wondering about Lisa Fischer. She was brought to centre stage by Luther Vandross and won a Grammy, but she returned to singing backup – a star despite herself.
Still, there is the music. It feeds the soul and lifts the heart – even more so now that we have met the forgotten owners of the voices that help to make it so.