Film Review: 20 Feet From Stardom

Directed by Morgan Neville

Starring Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Tata Vega, Judith Hill and several others, and the groups/singers they backed up

This is both a joyful and a frustrating film. Each of the women listed above had the talent to be headlining names, but other than Darlene Love you probably have heard of none of them. For a variety of reasons and despite their exceptional voices, none ascended to the careers their talent seemed to warrant. In Love’s case, it was due to Phil Spector, who used her voice on records attributed to others and prevented her contractually from escaping him. With the others, personality, a pleasure in being part of the background blend, or the passage of time derailed them. All of them have had careers as backup singers to mostly men, who give them varying degrees of credit. Mick Jagger, for instance, has included Lisa Fischer on his tours for years.

These five, and most of the others mentioned in this documentary, are black females. I am not sure if that is the sound the groups or solo musicians sought or if white women and men did a better job in moving up or out of the business. We get to hear all of their glorious voices and wonder why in each case.

There is a lot of music in this film, but I would have liked to hear more. Once you get the gist of the story hearing the women sing is its principal satisfaction. This is a terrific film, especially for those who remember or enjoy the music of the sixties and seventies. The movie ends on the note that background singers are being used less and less. So a career, frustrating as it might have been for great voices, is fading away. Better a background singer than a maid, which turned into an alternate career for one of these women.


Patti Abbott