You hear their “oohs” and “aahs” on tons of popular songs, but for most of their careers they are back from the spotlight, their voices secondary to the famous ones captivating the crowd. In the new documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, a handful of backup singers finally get their chance to be seen as well as heard.
From the opening sequence, where the camera zooms in on them while their bandleaders are blocked out with blue dots, to the tightly framed close-ups on their faces singers, we get to know a group of women whose stories have never been told. Watch the trailer:
Director Morgan Neville, whom I spoke to recently in San Francisco along with singers Merry Clayton and Tata Vega, chronicles the ups and downs in the careers of singers like Darlene Love (member of the vocal trio the Blossoms and backup singer to Frank Sinatra); Lisa Fischer, who now tours with the Rolling Stones; and Clayton, one of Ray Charles’ background singers.
Producer Gil Friesen, who passed away in December, had his moment of inspiration while smoking a joint before a Leonard Cohen show. Thinking about Cohen’s backup singers, he grew curious about their stories and lives—who they were. After he teamed up with Neville and the two began talking to people, they quickly realized that no one really knew.
In the film, many of the singers speak of their deep love of music, melodies, and sound. “Singing is about sharing,” Fischer, the Stones’ backup, says. “It’s never a competition.”
“I just loved music is all,” adds Tata Vega, who backed up Stevie Wonder and is now singing with Elton John. “That’s all I wanted to do.”