Twenty Feet From Stardom is a brilliant new documentary from Director, Morgan Neville and Producer, Gil Friesen, that chronicles the lives and careers of the music industry’s most legendary back-up singers. The film is an absolutely mesmerizing portrait of a profession that most of us very much take for granted, and for the first time shines the spotlight on a very uniquely talented cadre of artists whose work is not only indispensible, but truly inspiring.
Being an avid fan of the classic rock of the sixties and seventies, I was truly struck by how little I knew about these incredible performers. But now, after seeing this film, I can assure you I will never forget the names of such singers as Darlene Love, the grande dame of the ensemble who at one point in her life ended up cleaning houses, only to rise like a phoenix and return to her music career; Merry Clayton, whose haunting riff on The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter has always been one of my favorites; and Lisa Fischer, whose performances in the movie, dating back to her early work with Luther Vandross, are absolutely breathtaking.
The common thread that weaves its way through all of these stories is one that we all know well. It’s the story of the person who has a dream, struggles against all odds to achieve it, overcomes obstacles, fights off inner demons, finds a way to stay true to who they are along the way, perseveres, and eventually triumphs. It’s a hero’s journey in the classic sense, and it couldn’t be portrayed with more sensitivity and eloquence.
Still, I can’t help thinking that there is even more to this thematic exploration as it’s captured in this particular movie, something that speaks to the very soul of every artist everywhere. These singers, though some of them had (or still have) aspirations to be stars, don’t sing for fame or fortune. They sing because it’s who they are. They sing because they can’t not sing. They sing because they literally must make their voices heard.
In a world where senseless YouTube videos and reality television shows can make anyone a “star,” and where technology has turned the media landscape into an ocean of options that is virtually unable to distinguish the talented from the talentless, it’s incredibly refreshing to see such monumentally gifted individuals have their day in the sun.
As a writer, I found this story so moving, not just because of the impeccable skill with which it was told, but also because of the many similarities that we, as writers, have with back up singers. Like backup singers, we toil in the shadows, out of the spotlight, oftentimes preferring it that way, but for the most part feeling that on some level we will never get the credit we deserve. And for those of us working in television, film or interactive media, like backup singers, our job is in many ways, to give others the foundation to do theirs. No lead singer sounds as good without those background vocals, and no actor, director, or producer can do anything without a script. Even the popularity of the successful novelist comes with a certain aloofness, a palpable distance from the “front of the stage.”
If you’re an artist of any kind, but particularly if you’re a writer, you owe it to yourself to go see this film. I promise you, the deep, heartfelt, commitment to the craft, and the emotional truth with which its expressed by the magnificent singers in Twenty Feet From Stardom, will be something you never forget.