’20 Feet From Stardom': Behind the Documentary about Legendary Backing Singers
Lots of music documentaries tell you more about something you already know. Do you love Stevie Nicks? Check out In Your Dreams! Are you a Rolling Stones die-hard? Grab a copy of Crossfire Hurricane! Are you a huge Bruce Springsteen fan? Watch testimonials by even bigger fans in Springsteen & I! But how many backing singers do you know by name, and how much to do you know about them?
In 20 Feet From Stardom, those back-up vocalists take center stage, and a number of iconic stars— including Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Mick Jagger, along backing singer turned front woman Sheryl Crow—play a supporting role to sing their praises. The film is a gripping story of talent that came close to stardom, but could never quite grabbed the spotlight or just couldn’t hold on to it.
Darlene Love‘s story was one of the most complex in the film. That measurement of “20 feet” marks the approximate distance between the background singers’ microphones and the lead singer’s. As Bruce Springsteen says in the film, “It’s a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is… complicated.” As a backing singer on some of Phil Spector’s biggest productions including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Da Doo Run Run” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Love also sang lead for the Blossoms and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans before going solo. But despite having a solid discography of hits, she soon found herself broke and cleaning houses for a living.
Watching her tell her story is one of the most emotional moments in a film filled with them.
“Well, when I first saw the film on screen, it was really touching to me, seeing me telling the story,” Love told Radio.com. “I didn’t know I was going to be so emotional. I wasn’t emotional about it when I was cleaning the houses! I don’t mind telling the story, because it’s true. Not only were stars mistreated, but so were background singers. You would always hear about the star who didn’t get their money. The same thing happened to background singers, just no one ever knew it. I am really happy that the story is being told. I wish every entertainer who is in this business—especially the younger ones—will go see this film.”
Another storyline traces the tale of Merry Clayton. You may not know the name, but you should, and you definitely know her voice. That’s her singing with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” That’s also her on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The film tells the story of how, despite having sang on a number of huge hits, and having industry heavyweights like Lou Adler behind her, she simply never became a star on her own.
The woman who sings Merry’s part from “Gimme Shelter” onstage with the Rolling Stones, Lisa Fischer, is also a central figure to the documentary, although her story follows a different path than that of her fellow backing singers.
She’s been in the Stones’ touring band since their 1989 return to the road, but in 1991, she released her solo debut, So Intense; the single “How Can I Ease The Pain” won a GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Performance. The expected career trajectory at that point would be to leave her other gigs to focus on her solo career. Instead, she did the opposite: she ditched her solo career, and remained a backing singer for the Stones, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner and Sting, among others.
“I think, for me, the background singer part of my life which is where I started,” Fischer told Radio.com. “I love it so much. I love being with people, I love making sounds with other people, I love watching people shine when they know their purpose. I just felt that I really didn’t know my purpose [as a solo artist]. I knew that I could sing. But when it came down to going into the studio – ‘Ok, what do you want to do?’ I was like, ‘Um… I want to sing a nice song?'”
With her talent, she surely could have become a superstar. But it would not have suited her personality. Her main passion is singing, and not all of the decisions that comes around singing: “[They’d say] ‘You should know your audience, and you should know this and you should know that’ and…” Fischer trails off. Marketing meetings about her image would not be something Fischer would look forward to.
Fischer’s also something of an anti-diva. When discussing the recent Rolling Stones tour, where occasionally special guests —Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige, Florence Welch—sang the lead part on “Gimme Shelter” and Lisa switched to backing vocals, she seemed not to mind losing her one song in the spotlight.
“I loved it, for me it was a blast,” says Fischer. “After singing it since 1989, it was beautiful to hear someone else interpret it… it gave me a new perspective and a new way to hear it. I think some of them were worried that I’d have some weird feelings about it, but I had no weird feelings about it at all. I was actually excited for them because I know the feeling, it was actually a beautiful thing to share. It was fun to figure out the background part.”
— Brian Ives, Radio.com