Movie review: In “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” the back up singers get recognized

By Gina Scialabba

The Guardsman

Carole King. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Mick Jagger. Frank Sinatra. Michael Jackson. Elvis—all household names.

All musical geniuses that possessed sheer, raw talent. No wonder they were “discovered,” right?

The Blossoms. Darlene Love. Merry Clayton. Lisa Fischer. Tata Vega. Also musical geniuses.

Who, you ask? Exactly the point of this brilliant new documentary by director Morgan Neville.

The names and faces of the artists featured in “Twenty Feet From Stardom” may not be widely recognized, but it’s safe to say their voices will be familiar to most pop music fans.

The film explores the obscure history of backup singers, including their highs and lows in a cutthroat music industry.

The point of the film is simple. Just because you are immensely talented (sometimes more than the lead singer), doesn’t mean you will be a “star.”

Chances are, you are familiar with the adroit musical talent of these artists, most of them women.

Take a listen to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and you will hear Darlene Love.

Carole King owes thanks to backup singer Merry Clayton for her blockbuster album, “Tapestry.”

Oh, you know that little tune you sometimes hum, “Sweet Home Alabama.” Yeah, Clayton’s on that too.

The movie beautifully weaves the heartbreak that accompanies undiscovered talent amidst a backdrop of archival footage.

Not only is it a music lover’s paradise (I found myself tapping along to the soundtrack several times), it highlights a pervasive issue of happiness and letdown. Of following your dreams, even if you never get noticed or recognized.

The vocalists, all with powerhouse voices, spent their careers in the background, blending their voices to match the lead singer, and, in essence, losing their individual identities.

Many struggled throughout their lives to do what they loved—sing.  While artists such as Mick Jagger and Ray Charles enjoyed unbelievable fame and fortune, these women didn’t.

They just wanted to sing. Some took odd jobs such as housekeeper or teaching Spanish. Others stopped singing altogether.

Perhaps the most haunting scene involved Michael Jackson’s backup singer, Judith Hill.

Her vocals are angelic. We see footage of Hill singing alongside The King of Pop on stage. Both voices are melodic and soulful.

The movie then cuts away to a blurred out image of a person at a piano. Close your eyes and you would swear it was Michael singing. Only, it was Hill.

It’s like watching an undiscovered talent on American Idol. I had the feeling I was in on “a big secret.” This girl is going far, I thought.

Yet, she still hasn’t. Barely scraping by to make ends meet.

When I left the theater, I began paying attention.

I listened to music differently. Suddenly, I heard backup vocals everywhere.

Go see this movie. You will too.

If you go…

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Genre: Documentary

US Release Date:     January 17, 2013    (Sundance Film Festival) (Premiere)

April 26, 2013 (San Francisco International Film Festival)

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Directed by Morgan Neville

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