The glorious 20 Feet from Stardom is the surprise of the summer. It audits some 60 years of the very best pop music through an unexplored angle: the backup singers who remained unknown while chilling spines around the world.
The singers here—Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and the almost tangibly warm Lisa Fischer—are most frequently heard giving a dose of soul to white headliners (à la Lou Reed in "Walk on the Wild Side" handing it off to "the colored girls [who] sing doot, do doot, do doot . . .") When Sinatra wanted to sound like Ray Charles on "That's Life," he needed the kind of sound the Raylettes provided; when British rockers like Jimmy Page and Joe Cocker wanted to emulate Mississippians, they needed the same talents that accompanied Ike and Tina Turner.
20 Feet from Stardom begins with a heart-stopping clip from Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense—with interviewee Lynn Mabry performing "Slippery People," calming the jitters in David Byrne's voice with a wave of faith and hope—and travels through decades of rock and pop music.
Positively exhilarating is the scene where Clayton revisits a certain recording studio. The way Clayton tells the story of "Gimme Shelter," it's clear people have been leaning in to hear it for decades: Clayton was pregnant, her hair in curlers under a scarf, when she was called down for a Rolling Stones session in the middle of the night. Soon, she warmed up and wailed: "Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away. . . ." (After leaving the studio, Clayton lost her baby in a miscarriage, and popular legend tends to link the sad event to the emotional power of her performance.)
Director Morgan Neville has made documentaries on everyone from Burt Bacharach to Iggy and the Stooges, and the rapport with his subjects is unimpeachable. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Sting are interviewed not as stars but as fans, collaborators and industry insiders baffled by the algebra of success.
Talent is not enough, 20 Feet from Stardom says, and self-promoting force is not enough. These singers never made it as solo artists; and the current studio technology that can make any schlub a singer can also make any schlub a backup singer. If this profession has more past than present, these women are jewels who finally get a setting.
In a roundabout way, the movie also answers the question: Why, when a song comes on the radio, do we sing the chorus instead of the lead? Because it's the people's part of the song.
'20 Feet from Stardom' is playing at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.