Documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” showcases the sass and soul of backup singers from the doo-wop era to now through interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and the women whose voices complemented their work for decades.
But more than an inside view, this film takes a common belief — that backup singing is somewhat secondary to leading — and flips it on its head.
Writer/director Morgan Neville introduces The Blossoms, the first group to pave the way for female vocalists. Neville explores the insane list of songs they contributed to, which runs the gamut from Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” to Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash.”
Blossoms standout Darlene Love later worked with and was professionally burned by musically renowned producer Phil Spector. (If they knew then what we know now…)
And that’s part of the allure of “20 Feet from Stardom.” It unfolds like a history lesson on American and British music that you can’t stop watching.
Director Neville interviews Springsteen and Sting, and viewers learn the story behind the Rolling Stones’ hit song, “Gimme Shelter” through Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton, the powerhouse singer whose voice made the song what it is.
At 2 a.m., Clayton got a call from “the Rolling somebodies.” She drove with them to the studio in her pajamas and ripped one of the most paramount hooks in rock history. Director Neville cuts to each artist listening to the song they created.
Watching their reactions — musing the history of a tune I grew up listening to — sent chills down my spine. And this film is full of moments like that.
“20 Feet” also follows background singers who tried, failed and succeeded at going solo and those who prefer to stay in an accompanying role. It offers insights into how they were treated from a dress code that “excites men” in the 60s to the freeing rock revolution of the 70s.
“Everyone was telling us we had to bring everything down, so when the rock ‘n’ roll world came and said ‘No, we want you to sing!’ — it saved us, it saved our lives,” said Gloria Jones. (Her resume includes working with T. Rex, Joe Cocker and Neil Young.)
“20 Feet” also looks at a band’s structural changes of the 90s and onward. While this film shows how the role of backup singing has changed, it doesn’t offer a prediction of the craft’s future.
This documentary covers a lot of ground, and I was engaged completely throughout. It won Best Documentary at the 2013 Oscars, and it’s well worth the nod.
Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.
IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.