‘TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM’
STAR-STUDDED DOCUMENTARY SHINES LIGHT ON BACKUP SINGERS AND THEIR GOSPEL ROOTS
‘Millions Know Their Voices, But No One Knows Their Names’
Little wonder the engaging new documentary TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM earned the honor of opening this year’s documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s three films in one.
? a touching, personal portrait of the backup singers to music’s biggest superstars, who displayed their undeniable talent just outside the spotlight.
? a fascinating history of how backup singing morphed from the clipped harmonies laid under the crooners of yesteryear to the emotive, soulful, integral component of modern music.
? an exploration of the church and gospel roots of so many of the backup singers to the stars.
“Backup singers pretty much all started in church choirs and can sing circles around most lead singers,” said Morgan Neville, the award-winning director of TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM. That fact has been commonly known in the Black community for decades, where the church has been seen as a treasure trove of talent, but it’s an ah-ha! for many.
At one point, Neville rapidly cuts from one interview to the next with one talented singer after another responding to the question, “Where did you start singing?” And the answers roll out: “My daddy was a preacher,” “I was a preacher’s kid,” “I sang in church.”
“You come up learning what part your voice fits in,” singer Darlene Love said of growing up in the church.
In fact, the trend started with Love and the girl group The Blossoms. Now a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, Love and many other African-American backup singers like her started singing in the church choir, were discovered by Southern California record producers and began adding a new dimension of sound to the hits . . . of others.
Producing legend Phil Spector had Love under contract in the early 1960s and while singles by Love and The Blossoms received scant attention, they were the sound behind such hits as Johnny Angel, The Poor Side of Town and Da Doo Ron Ron. Even some hit singles credited to other singers actually featured Love’s vocals.
“These gifted artists span a range of styles, genres and eras of popular music, but each has a uniquely fascinating and personal story to share of life spent in the shadows of super-stardom,”
Neville spent years interviewing (sometimes after much detective work to find them) singers who backed up such names as Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, and many, many more. The backup singers range from Love to former “Raelette” now preacher Mabel John. And the story gets current as well. Young backup singer Judith Hill is trying to move from the shadows to center stage now and currently is a contestant on The Voice.
Neville did more than talk to backup singers; he discussed them with the stars—Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting, to name a few.
“It goes back to the church call and response,” Bruce Springsteen said. “There’s that guy out front testifying, and then there’s the community behind, ‘Amen-ing.’ That was the backup sound that came straight out of Gospel and the church and was secularized.”
One singer, TaTa Vega went so far as to play piano in the hallway and sing so Stevie Wonder could hear her. “I heard this girl doing all these (different) riffs,” Wonder said, “and I thought, ‘Is that the same girl?’”
Vega earned her shot at backup singing but never hit the spotlight. As Springsteen said, “It’s a bit of a walk from back by the drummer . . . That walk to the front is complicated.”
For “real musicians, there’s a spiritual component to what they are doing that’s got nothing to do with worldly success,” Sting said. “There’s this idea that you can go on American Idol and suddenly become a star. But you may bypass the spiritual work that you have to do to get there.”
Triumphant and heartbreaking in equal measure, the film is both a tribute to the unsung voices that brought shape and style to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others.
RADiUS-TWC releases TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM, which opens in New York and Los
Angeles June 14, followed by a nationwide rollout in theaters.
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