20 Feet from Stardom

This Oscar winning documentary from Morgan Neville charts the historical value of the singers who, as backing vocalists for major stars, shaped the sound of modern music as we know it but never attained the recognition they deserved. Going someway to redress the balance this heartfelt and moving documentary looks at the importance and influence –come on let’s face it often the backing vocal parts are the ones which stick in the mind the most and the ones you find yourself singing along with- these women have had.
It is mainly women that this film focuses on although Luther Vandross is a notable exception but he managed superstar success where his female counterparts failed.
Whilst it is unbelievable that stardom eluded such talented individuals it also becomes apparent that it was not simply their gender which worked against them but also their colour; at the time they were working, misogyny and racism went hand in hand in a white male dominated music industry. Not that bitterness is the driving energy behind this film nor does resentment raise its head too often but there is certainly an air of disappointment and confusion mixed with certain moments of sheer bliss at moments of triumph when eventually one of them receives their deserved accolades.
Of all the singers featured in this film the one whose tale probably stands out the most is Darlene Love. Invited to ghost on several sessions by sixties wunderkind- the more recently disgraced- Phil Spector she was invited to sing on several sessions and her voice appeared as the lead vocal on major classic hits such as ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘He’s a Rebel’ credited to The Crystals, who appeared lip-synching her vocals on international TV whilst she languished in obscurity with Spector dangling the carrot of fame under her nose but continuing to leave her un-credited. Possibly the most frustrating tale of this whole film as her voice is instantly recognisable even today.
Another frustrating case is that of Claudia Lennear who began as an Ikette alongside Tina Turner and served as the inspiration for The Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ as well as David Bowie’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ but found herself thwarted when she made a bid for solo stardom. Things may be on the up for Lennear though as this film has awakened the interest of a recently energised Mr. Bowie who has insisted he will assist in re-launching her career in any way he can.
It would seem that although these ladies also possessed immense talent this was simply not enough in an industry that thought that one successful black soul singer was enough and that Aretha Franklin would do very nicely, thank you very much
. Thus the word was never to be made aware of the splendid voices of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Judith Hill or Jo Lawry as there was simply not a big enough market to house them all during the late sixties and early seventies and therefore remained deprived of hearing about them.
There are many notable stars singing the praises of these unhailed musical heroes not least Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Sting and although the film ends on a positive note- Love found herself eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011- there is still an air of sadness and missed opportunities surrounding the whole affair. It is a film which whilst pulling at the heartstrings also reveals that although fame may have been only twenty feet away on the same stage, for these women, it was twenty feet which may as well have been a million miles.

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