Susan Granger's review of '20 Feet from Stardom'
As Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" plays, the song introduces this poignant documentary about pop music's backup singers, most of them African-American women, who could be described as perennial underdogs.
With the exception of Darlene Love, who under Phil Spector's sponsorship crossed over into the spotlight after backing Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Frank Sinatra and Sam Cooke, among others, most of the vocalists featured are not well known, even though they can be heard backing famous bands and solo legendary singers on many of the most popular recordings of the past half-century.
Like Judith Hill, who was Michael Jackson's last backup singer and recently competed, unsuccessfully, on NBC-TV's "The Voice," and Merry Clayton, a preacher's daughter who got her musical training in gospel choirs and went on to record with Carole King, Mick Jagger and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lisa Fischer, who started out as part of Luther Vandross' group, won a Grammy in 1992 for her first single, "How Can I Ease the Pain," but the demands of stardom didn't sit well with her, even though she still tours with the Rolling Stones. Claudia Lennear was an Ikette with Ike and Tina Turner and a Stones regular in the early 1970s, and Tata Vega descended from being a promising Motown star into psychological uncertainty.
Filming was almost completed when Bruce Springsteen agreed to appear. Noting that not everyone is cut out for stardom, the rocker described a bus trip he took to Philadelphia for a 1973 David Bowie recording session, featuring the song "The Young Americans" with a young Luther Vandross among the backup singers.
Directed by Morgan Neville and produced by A&M Records exec Gil Friesen, the narrative mixes interviews with archival footage, including comments from Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Sting and Stevie Wonder. Among those who didn't make the final cut were Cissy Houston and Emmylou Harris.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "20 Feet from Stardom" is an uplifting, intriguing 8, appealing to fans of R&B and classic rock `n' roll.