What is it like being a backing singer to a successful artist? That’s the core question in 20 Feet From Stardom, the Oscar-winning documentary which examines the highs and lows of recording and singing vocals while someone else gets all the adulation. Morgan Neville tackles the topic from both ends, questioning the backing singers and some of the huge stars that utilise their talents.
The standout tale comes from Darlene Love, the famed Motown singer who was under contract to the legendary Phil Spector. Love was on the cusp of gig things when she recorded ‘He’s Sure The Boy I Love’, believing the song would launch her solo career. However, she later discovered that that the cantankerous producer released the song and credited it to The Crystals. Another Love/Spector tale saw the singer finally released from her ironclad contract in the 1970s, again with the intention of launching her solo career. Love signed a contract with a new producer only for the contract to be sold back to Spector.
20 Feet From Stardom examines why some backing singers are able to break out and carve their own careers (like Sheryl Crowe), while others fail to make an impact. The documentary looks at how this affects these singers and the toll that it takes on their ego. It’s an interesting idea, as we often see these singers performing and we perhaps seldom ponder if they have greater expectations for their careers. Often it is simply a case that these talented singers never get the right break at the right time, showing that achieving a career as a successful singer may have as much to do with luck as it does with talent.
Neville’s film features a slew of major names from Bruce Springsteen and Sting to Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder, who all have their thoughts and ideas on the impact of backing singers and why some never make the cut as artists in their own right. These A-list musings and a corking soundtrack mean that 20 Feet From Stardom is a must see film for those who have a serious interest in music (especially from the 60s and 70s). The only negative thing that you could say about the film is that there’ almost too much crammed into its 90 minute running time. This would have made a great two or three part series, where it could really have delved deep into the psychology of the subject, while also giving the singers the opportunity to tell their stories in more detail. Having said that, it’s always good to be left wanting more and 20 Feet From Stardom does indeed do that.