Twenty Feet from Stardom

November 23, 2013
Lisa Fischer in the film "Twenty Feet From Stardom," directed by Morgan Neville.       NYTCREDIT: Graham Willoughby/Sundance Film Festival
Lisa Fischer in the film "Twenty Feet From Stardom," directed by Morgan Neville. NYTCREDIT: Graham Willoughby/Sundance Film Festival

One of the features of world cinema over the past decade has been the resurgence of the feature-length documentary. Two outstanding new examples are getting theatrical releases this week: 20 Feet From Stardom, which looks at the careers of some of the leading back-up singers in popular music; and Blackfish, which examines the lives of Orcas in captivity and the tragic results of this treatment.

If you’ve ever paused to wonder who sang that amazing chorus in Gimme Shelter, “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away..” it was one Merry Clayton. Called into a late night recording session at short notice, Clayton turned up in a night gown, and, as Mick Jagger remembers, her hair in curlers. She proceeded to blow everybody away, with a voice of unbelievable power.

Merry Clayton went on to record three solo albums, but never made much impression on a fickle industry. Her great moments occurred almost anonymously, as a back-up singer for various high profile stars.

Clayton’s story is echoed, almost eerily, by singers such as Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, the Waters Family, and the mother-of-them-all, Darlene Love. Each of these women had a voice that makes most pop singers look like hopeless mumblers, but they were never able to translate that talent into a solo career. A younger singer, Judith Hill, a protégé of Michael Jackson, is currently trying to ensure she doesn’t follow a similar fate.

This could be a sad story but Morgan Neville has made a joyous, immersive documentary that keeps us floating from one amazing vocal to another, while these singers tell us the story of their lives. The woman with the most to regret is probably Darlene Love, who was exploited, and eventually ruined, by legendary producer, Phil Spector. Love sang the lead vocal on He’s a Rebel, only to find the record credited to The Crystals. That was merely the start of her troubles, which eventually led to her abandoning the music business and taking work as a cleaner.

Love, today, is a vibrant 72-year-old, who has resumed singing. Like the other women, she seems to have no regrets about what might have been. The film tries to analyse why such talented artists never became stars in their own right, including thoughtful comments from figures such as Bruce Springsteen and Sting. The consensus is that it requires a certain kind of ego to be a star, and perhaps a ruthless streak. All these singers seem to have been more in love with the music than with their careers. They usually began singing gospel and took that communal feeling into the recording industry.

Sting believes that singers such as Lisa Fischer have treated their work as a spiritual activity rather than a business. It’s a intriguing idea, as so much popular music sounds as if it were written by a machine. This film makes us listen again. It heightens our appreciation of the best pop music, and the vital contributions made by these almost invisible angels.

20 Feet From Stardom
USA, rated M
91 Mins
Written & directed by Morgan Neville; starring Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, Judith Hill

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23 November, 2013