The first 45 I bought was “He’s A Rebel” in 1962. Like everyone else who helped turn it into a hit, I thought we were singing along to a girl group called the Crystals. But the real singer on the single, and on so many other classic rock ‘n’ roll songs under many different names, was really Darlene Love, the unsung heroine of back-up singers. 20 Feet From Stardom celebrates Love and her female, and a few male, cohorts, who sang distinctive back-up anonymously on memorable records, and still struggle to gain recognition for the past and even today within the changing music business.
Love’s story is the most well-known, from her glorious voice that was first credited only with the Blossoms, to the restrictive legal fights with the legendary producer seen in all his control freak warpedness in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (2009), besides her rejuvenated musical career since the 1980s. But first the documentary usefully provides more general background on how the new West Coast rock scene gradually admitted African-American women into recording studios to make use of their limber church choir experience, as commemorated in the classic line from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” heard here: “And the colored girls go—”doo, da-doo, da-doo, doo doo doo doo.”As busy as Love became, singing for hours behind dozens and dozens of performers (Sam Cooke, the Beach Boys, and Frank Sinatra, to name a few), she brought in other girls she knew through choirs, particularly her younger friend Merry Clayton (the now septuagenarians were teens then).
Amidst compliments from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, producer Lou Adler, and rock historian Warren Zanes, and a trove of rare archival photographs and footage, Love belly laughs about her rocky career in the music trade, while the saltier Clayton relishes how “Rock ‘n’ roll saved my life.” It’s Clayton’s voice who unforgettably punctuated the Rolling Stones’ 1969 track “Gimme Shelter” with the frank lyric (especially for the daughter of a preacher man) “Rape, murder; It’s just a shot away!” at a last-minute, midnight recording session. While she had initially achieved her aspiration to be a Raylette with Ray Charles, and failed as a solo artist with several LPs because radio would play “only one Aretha,” she relished the freedom “to kick ass” on rock records, reminiscent of Tina Turner rebelling against R & B strictures in her career. (Other women interviewed also served time in the Ikettes.)
Clayton’s solo on that Stones track has helped provide continuing work for younger women to put their own spin on the song as that band keeps touring, particularly Lisa Fischer, who has accompanied them for more than 20 years. Fischer also tried to break through as a soloist, even garnering a Grammy. Seeing her return to back-up looks like the singer version of Cassie, the dancer in A Chorus Line trying to blend into the background again after bad breaks. But she stays optimistic by looking to the example of Luther Vandross, who was one of the few who broke through—footage of him backing up David Bowie on “Young Americans” is a wonderful find. (The film’s emphasis on people of color, including Puerto Rican Tata Vega, who tours with Elton John, seems to preclude the other notable example of Sheryl Crow, who moved upstage after backing Michael Jackson.)
Following Fisher and Judith Hill (also notable from singing with Jackson) verité style on their busy daily schedules freshens the nostalgia. Though director Morgan Neville (a music filmmaker, not a Neville Brother) touts this documentary as unique, the model of rare clips and memories interspersed with live performances is like others that have brought attention to heroes and heroines of popular music hidden in plain sight, such as the Funk Brothers in Paul Justman’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) and Chuck Berry’s bandmate Johnnie Johnson in Taylor Hackford’s Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987). Those films both led to inductions into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, which was also awarded to Darlene Love after a fan lobbying campaign. But there are many other still lesser-known singers who were, and are, only 20 feet from stardom that this informative and entertaining documentary gives well-deserved r-e-s-p-e-c-t, climaxing with a resonant group rendition of “Lean on Me.” No auto-tuning or dubs necessary.