The best documentary of the past year, according to the Oscars, is 20 Feet From Stardom, the story of the men and women behind the greatest musical artists of our time: the backup singers.
Living in relative obscurity, these (primarily) women are the voices that we all know and love from our favorite records, but know nothing about them, and too often, never give them a second thought. The most poignant and true line of the film is when someone states that the backup singers are so important, to the point that when people hear their songs on the radio, it is the backing vocals they often sing along with, not the lead singer. And this couldn’t be more true. The backup singers sing the hooks, the parts of the song that we love and remember better than anything.
In 20 Feet From Stardom, we are given the stories of some of the most famous singers of all time, if we only knew who they were. It is absolutely incredible to see and hear the lists of songs that these women sang on, and helped to make great. The film does an incredible job of letting us know how important they were to the great days of soul, R&B, and rock n’ roll music, and giving us their resumes of what they have accomplished over the years. It is also incredible to find out how only a small handful of people were the same ones on hit after hit, songs that we have sung along with on the radio for years.
These women were blessed with some incredible vocal talents, and the innate ability to listen to a song, and figure out what their parts should be, and how to harmonize perfectly along with them. This has created some incredible music, as many of our favorite songs would be nothing without the backing vocals. It is very interesting to see why their careers were as backing singers, and it is for a number of reasons. Some prefer to remain in the background. Some tried to have solo careers, but were victims of timing, or the industry, or bad contracts. Some couldn’t dedicate the time or ego to being a solo artist. The reasons are all over the place, and it is kind of sad to know that some of the greatest talents of our time were stuck singing “Oooh”s behind some of our favorite artists.
One of the more interesting tales is that of the famous Rolling Stones song, “Gimme Shelter.” One of their better songs, it is so inspired due to the wailing female voice that delivers some of the more poignant lines in the song. The story of how it came to be is amazing, and simply gaining an understanding of how important the female voice is to that song is what makes the storytelling in this film so memorable. It does its best to put a name and a face to the voices we all really do know.
As expected, 20 Feet From Stardom is chock full of great music. From Motown, to David Bowie, the Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, it is all there.
This film is an excellent view into the lives of the backup singers. The hardships and the successes, the moments of glory on stage and the great tales of the recording studio. It is very humanizing, and makes us want to hear more from these great vocalists. It does a great job of letting us see behind the scenes in to the music industry, and why none of these women really “made it,” as we would typically describe making it. From the start, it is very interesting, and the movie never really lags in its story. We go from the origins of the backup vocals around the time of Motown hits, to the golden age of rock and roll, where they were given more freedom and leeway. We get to see their reactions to suddenly going from being singers, to being sexualized on stage, to forgotten and replaced by emerging recording technologies. It is a sad story, but one that allows us to see the strength and glory of these women and their accomplishments.
For fans of documentaries, and of music in general, 20 Feet From Stardom is a must-see. You may never listen to your favorite songs the same way again.