Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published November 10th 2013
The unsung heroes of popular music
Director: Morgan Neville (Troubadours, Brian Wilson: A Beachboy's Tale) Cast: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer
With the critical and commercial success of Searching for Sugarman, it's safe to say we can expect more music documentaries coming our way, and if they're going to be half as good as Twenty Feet From Stardom, then we are in for a treat.
Different generations of backup singers assemble for Twenty Feet From Stardom
The trials and tribulations of being a backup singer may not be an obvious subject for a doco, but that's the whole point here. Constantly in the shadows of their famous headliners, they are the unsung heroes of contemporary music. This, however, is not a story of sour grapes. For the most part Twenty Feet is an infectious celebration of their craft.
Like recent popular docos, First Position, Spellbound and Every Little Step to name a few, Twenty Feet singles out a handful of shining examples of its subject and chronicles their careers and aspirations. It examines why, despite their obvious talent, they didn't go that step further to being famous solo singers.
The Blossoms circa 1965 when the backup singer first became an integral part of popular music
The reasons vary wildly, from sheer bad timing to bad management (in one example, criminally unjust). In the case of my favourite, Lisa Fischer, we see someone who just didn't have the kind of personality that was comfortable with fame. When she sings though, you can see why her musical peers gush about her.
Those more famous peers are on hand to extol the virtues of the film's subjects, an impressive array that includes Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Sting and Mick Jagger. The film also touches on the changing nature of the music industry and how back up singers are no longer the valued asset they once were. Now any studio engineer can digitally tune a singer's voice in post-production.
With music ranging from the mid 60s, when the African American woman as back-up singer phenomenon started, to the present day, this will get your toes tapping and bring a smile to your face. It will also give you a new found appreciation next time you're singing along to the harmonies of a favourite song.