20 Feet From Stardom Review

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Some yearn for fame, others eschew it, but the role of back-up singers yields fascinating, funny and frustrating tales of talents standing, and singing, in the shadows.


Joyous, spectacular, tuneful, touching and thoughtful, Morgan Neville’s documentary on back-up singers was the highest-grossing doc in America in 2013. You can see why. It has something for everyone who likes music and anyone with even a passing sociological interest in the culture of celebrity.

Beautifully shaped into a narrative, interviews, recording sessions and concert clips illustrate the artistry of back-up singers from the birth of rock ’n’ roll — when many of those shimmying behind the person in the spotlight providing the doo-doo-doohs were preachers’ kids who cut their teeth in church choirs — to our digital age in which real ability is redundant, technological trickery eliminating artists who can sing rings around many a chart-topper. Interviewees including Mick Jagger (who admits to a penchant for a comely backing singer), Sting, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen (who married one) reflect on the differences between having talent and attaining fame, while performance footage to die for ranges from Ray Charles with his Raelettes to David Bowie (that’s Luther Vandross backing him on the 1974 Diamond Dogs/The Soul tour!), Michael Jackson, Talking Heads and more.

The singers, whether speaking blissfully of a higher calling or tearfully recounting outrageous exploitation, are riveting. Among them are pastor Dr. Mable John, a Raelette in her booty-shaking youth who still gets her congregation going, legends Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, and some breathtakingly gifted stars to the stars. Pastor’s daughter Love’s story is a movie on its own: sang uncredited in servitude to Phil Spector, failed at a solo career, turned housecleaner, made a feisty comeback, played Danny Glover’s Lethal Weapon wife and was finally inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Clayton’s spine-tingling contribution to Gimme Shelter is memorably recalled by Jagger and Clayton, and the marvellous Waters family, who have lent their harmonies to hundreds of albums (Thriller) and films (The Lion King), sing around a kitchen table so awesomely you get the transformative, spiritual high of voices joined becoming one.

A crowdpleaser that also tells an important story about showbiz, it’s fab. You’ll come out singing.