There's both joy and sadness in watching Twenty Feet From Stardom, a rousing yet melancholy tribute to the background singers whose harmonious voices are all over 20th-century popular music.
A favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival, as well as this year's Full Frame doc fest in Durham, Morgan Neville's film is nirvana for people who want to see unsung heroes finally tell their story. Most came straight from the church, where they were gospel-singing pastors' daughters whose joyful noise-making tendencies slid into pop songs.
In the movie's telling, it all began with West Coast trio The Blossoms, led by a teenage Darlene Love, whose waggling hips and soulful vocals helped make them an in-demand trio. Singing on everything from Frank Sinatra tunes to that novelty hit "Monster Mash," Love and her crew led the way for other gals to get studio time. The most divalicious of them is Merry Clayton, a former member of Ray Charles' Raelettes who became Mick Jagger's notorious duet partner on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter."
Clayton credits Brits like the Stones, Joe Cocker and David Bowie (who had a then-unknown Luther Vandross do backing vocals on his Young Americans album) for giving their backup singers freedom, encouraging them to bring out the blackness these Englishmen openly copped for their music. Still, being a backup to appreciative Brits wasn't enough—these singers wanted to make it big back in the States.
This is where the sadness comes in. As talented as these ladies were, their moments in the spotlight were usually dimly lit affairs. It's obvious that being black and female in the music industry—any entertainment industry—usually does not make a successful pairing. Some would say it could handicap you.
Joyous, uplifting, melancholy and nostalgic, Twenty Feet From Stardom is a stunning salute to the singers who stay in the background, but whose talents can never be contained there.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stealing in the shadows."