20 Feet From Stardom -- "Some people just don’t have the narcissism or ego to want to be center stage in the spotlight," Bruce Springsteen comments in the new documentary "20 Feet from Stardom." It is for these unsung heroes, the background singers, that this new film takes on as its subject, seeking to rectify their anonymity by placing them front and center in this fascinating new documentary.
Anyone who has heard the classic Rolling Stones song "Gimme Shelter" can testify to the power that a killer background singer can possess. When background singer Merry Clayton belts out, "Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away! It’s just a shot away!" near the end of the song, it’s nothing short of transcendent. Clayton’s intensity and impressive set of pipes prove capable of immediately sending a chill right down your spine. Her impassioned vocals have both the power to temporarily upstage none other than Mick Jagger himself, but also provides the climax to the song and end up writing music history in the process.
The life story of Merry Clayton is included in "20 Feet From Stardom," as well as many others, such as the legendary Darlene Love of Phil Spector fame, to reveal the compromises and difficulties for being "almost famous." Love’s experiences working with the legendary producer alone are worthy of an entire film itself, revealing how dangerously seductive the power of fame can be only to find the journey racked with unforeseen struggles and disappointments.
For this reason, "20 Feet From Stardom" is more than just a revisionist rewriting of music history featuring the less well known participators in the massive machinery of fame. The film also speaks universally to the power of following your dreams, and how life often rarely turns out the way you want. The struggles of these marginalized music industry participants reveals how talent will only get you so far, and that blind chance holds the power to make or break an entire career.
After all, there is no doubt watching the film that any of these featured singers possess all the talent necessary to become music industry stars on their own. However, as the film poignantly reveals, the path to fame is paved with many more heartbreak stories than it is with inspiring success stories. Hearing the trials and tribulations of these music veterans who can tell the tale first hand portrays a compelling glimpse into the inner workings of the music industry itself, and their stories make for fascinating viewing.
The film itself holds a wealth of vintage archival footage that is worth the price of admission alone. Watching Merry Clayton deliver a definitively funky and powerful rendition of Neil Young’s "Southern Man" as she struggles to launch a solo career is just one such highlight, reclaiming a lost gem from the broadcast archives. Her subsequent lack of success as a solo artist despite her obvious talents provides a potent reminder of the fickle tastes of fame.
Meanwhile director Morgan Neville has managed to collect an impressive list of interview subjects such as Sting, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen to weigh in their perspectives on the subject. A song’s particular background vocalist’s name may be as easily forgotten to history as the screenwriter behind some mega-blockbuster, but as these high-profile artists can attest, the right background vocals can be the difference between a chart-topping hit and a long-forgotten miss.
Darlene Love’s personal story provides as compelling a life story as one could hope to find. Given the promise of the pathway to personal stardom by Phil Spector himself, Love was subjected to the demoralizing experience of hearing her own vocals consistently being credited to other stars without a credit to her name. Her personal experiences provide the template for how the music industry is capable of exploiting of an individual’s talent only to discard them once their value is extinguished. In fact, as the film reveals out, it was while hearing her own vocals on the radio while toiling as an anonymous house cleaner that Love decided to turn her life around, realizing she was destined for bigger things.
In fact, it is Darlene Love’s career that provides the film with its most uplifting narrative. Reviving her career when she was well into her 40s (well past retirement age for most female singers), Love reclaimed her rightful place as one of music’s most powerful voices, making one of the most stunning comebacks in music history. She was eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, a personal vindication with stars like Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler by her side. Her story alone is an inspiring tale of overcoming adversity and is just one of the many reasons "20 Feet from Stardom" is essential viewing for any fan of popular music.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.