20 Feet from Stardom opens with a warning from Bruce Springsteen: “That walk to the front [of the stage] is complicated.” He also notes that “singing background remains a somewhat unheralded position.” The Boss is right on both counts. How many people, for instance, could put a name to the voices behind “Gimme Shelter” or “The Great Gig in the Sky”? Too few, by far. We all recognize the voices of background singers, but, until now, background singers have not been given a voice of their own. They have been viewed largely as footnotes in musical history, neglected by both their listeners and their colleagues. This film illuminates the importance of such footnotes, exploring their struggles, their triumphs, and their undervalued contribution to the music that we know and love.
Directed by Morgan Neville and produced by Gil Friesen, 20 Feet from Stardom combines music industry expertise with a filmic appreciation of the unsung artist. Gil Friesen began his career in the mail room of Capitol Records and went on to work with everyone from The Carpenters and The Police to Janet Jackson and Barry White. He has worked from the bottom of the ladder to the top, and the film reflects his intimate knowledge of all the steps in between. Morgan Neville, director of such films as Troubadours and The Cool School, uses Friesen’s insight to craft a subtle and sympathetic narrative that shifts between inspiration and pathos, anecdotal comedy and existential frustration.
20 Feet from Stardom follows the careers of established (yet relatively unknown) singers, such as Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill. Vintage footage, both rare and well-known, is skillfully intertwined with present-day interviews, creating a fascinating group biography and musical history lesson that mingles a celebratory tone with somber hints of longing for a time gone by—or a time that never quite was. These singers are passionate and optimistic, but their smiles are a bit too wide to be completely genuine, especially considering the motifs of their stories: disappointment, nostalgia, regret.
For instance, Lisa Fischer claims repeatedly that she possesses neither the ego nor the ambition required for the spotlight, that she sings purely for singing’s sake; however, greatness is suddenly thrust upon her when she has a chance to make a solo album. For any number of reasons—bad marketing, bad luck, bad timing—the album does not propel her towards stardom, and she returns to the underwhelming yet satisfying realm of background singing. Even today, she thinks about her missed opportunities (marriage, children, a lucrative solo career) but emphatically claims that she is “all good” without them.
Lisa is not the only lady in the film who protests too much. Like others’, her story has a happy ending—she has been touring with The Rolling Stones for more than two decades—but it is a qualified happiness, an ambivalent kind of fulfillment. She is respected by all, revered by some, envied by many, yet she cannot help but contemplate the road not taken. And her peers are no different. Like the rest of us, they try and they try and they try, but they can’t get no satisfaction. (Or at least not complete satisfaction.) This film raises interesting questions about the precarious nature of artistry, as well as the relations between music and politics, but its humane preoccupation with fame, fortune and (above all) happiness remains its greatest strength and the reason why it deserves to be seen.