They stayed in the game …
They’re the most-famous musicians you’ve never heard of. Merry Clayton’s performance in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is the exemplar of the memorable riff by the unknown singer at the back of the band – it’s their parts you hum.
From manufactured girl groups, to David Bowie; and from the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, to the soundtrack for The Lion King, few musical genres have escaped the background singers of the last 50 years. Their catalogue seems bottomless.
In Twenty Feet from Stardom, a documentary directed by Morgan Freeman and produced by Gil Friesen, which is available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library, the spotlight is on the background singers and, in a touching switch, the rock icons who show up to support them. Used to being watched, it turns out that these background singers and rock icons also saw with unusually acute insight.
“It’s a long walk from the back of the stage to the front,” says Bruce Springsteen.
And Sting reflects on the fickleness of musical stardom: “It’s not about talent. It’s luck, it’s circumstance, it’s destiny. I don’t know what it is.”
A few outliers – such as Sheryl Crow, who was one of Michael Jackson’s backup singers; and David Lasley, who sang vocals for James Taylor – appear in the film … but it’s the black women who brought gospel harmonies to pop music that the documentary spends the most time with. And no wonder. They’re irrepressible and irreverent, and their careers span the most colourful period of rock-and-roll culture.
The obvious theme for the filmmakers would be that of talented musicians, toiling in the background, who yearn to make their way to the front of the stage.
Darlene Love is the obvious candidate for that narrative, with her trajectory from near-fame, to obscurity and back to fame. The documentary ends with one of Darlene Love’s latest triumphs – being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and performing “A Fine, Fine Boy” with Bruce Springsteen backing her.
But the Cinderella story gives way to a larger philosophical theme, which is that being good at what you do is its own reward and is spiritually fulfilling. Lisa Fischer, who won a Grammy for her one solo album but who now tours as a singer with the Rolling Stones and who is in steady demand for a variety of gigs, says, “I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to … Some people will do anything to be famous. I just wanted to sing.”
Merry Clayton refers to the “killing spirit” that’s needed to make it as a solo act. “Some people just don’t have it,” she says.
This is an upbeat film without whitewashing the difficulties of living a life on the edge of rock and roll. Its star power, archival footage and music helped to make it one of the most popular and critically acclaimed releases of 2013, and resulted in winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of that year.
Additional footage and interviews are available on the extensive DVD extras.