Talk about role reversal: In the Oscar-nominated music documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," headliners like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Bette Midler play supporting roles to backup singers whose names are far less well-known, like Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and The Waters Family. Tellingly, these backup singers are identified onscreen not with a list of their hits (because in most cases, they didn't have any), but with a list of the stars they have assisted.
The 90-minute movie is a leading contender to win the Oscar for Documentary Feature this Sunday. It has grossed $4,867,000 since its release in June, according to boxofficemojo.com.
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The movie includes dozens of video clips to illustrate its points. We see how in many hits, the background singers sing the most memorable hooks. This is true of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" ("Rape, murder/It's just a shot away"), Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" ("and the colored girls sing/Soo-do-doo-do-doo-do-do-doo") and Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" ("Toot toot/Ahhh/Beep beep").
The movie explores various reasons these singers were unable to achieve stardom on their own. Among them:
- The art of background singing requires singers to blend in; not to stand out. The goal is to serve the lead singer — not to call attention to themselves. That's hardly ideal training for someone who wants to be a star.
- Background singing can be a safe cushion to fall back on. Sometimes too safe. Hill, who was all set to sing behind Michael Jackson on the "This Is It" tour and later competed on "The Voice," says: "When you're a background singer, it is a springboard, but it will easily become quicksand if that's not what you want to do."
- Background singers sometimes lack the burning desire necessary to become a star. Springsteen says, "You've got to have that narcissism. You've got to have that ego." Darlene Love makes a similar point: "I think you've got to have that 'kill spirit' to really want it."
- Talent alone isn't enough. Success also requires the right material, the right arrangement, the right producer, the right push. Sting takes this point even further: "It's also circumstance, luck, destiny."
So there's not necessarily a clear answer to the question of why some background singers never make it on their own. It may be a combination of factors, or for no good reason at all.
Nonetheless, we can't help but watch the movie looking for clues as to why these singers were stymied in their own careers. When Fischer says she has always thought it unseemly to try to finagle an introduction to someone ("Something about that feels slimy to me," she says), we wonder if she lacks that "kill spirit."
When she later says that one benefit of not being a star is she "can walk down the street and not have to worry about wearing sunglasses," we sense that she was ambivalent about stardom.
That may explain Fischer's odd career trajectory. She topped the R&B chart in 1991 with "How Can I Ease the Pain." The hit even brought her a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female (in a tie with Patti LaBelle's "Burnin'"). But she landed just two more R&B hits before returning to background work.
The movie includes many dramatic moments. Darlene Love, who was a member of the Blossoms, the top backup group of the 1960s, recalls the moment when she hit bottom. She had given up on music and was cleaning houses for a living. Christmas was approaching and she had the radio on as she cleaned a woman's bathroom. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," which she had sung on the classic Phil Spector Christmas album, came on the radio. The awful pang that she felt spurred her to try to get things going again in her career.
Love has a natural ebullience that gives no hint of the many roadblocks she has encountered, and is widely admired as both a singer and a survivor. She co-starred in the "Lethal Weapon" movies. She visits "Late Night With David Letterman" every year to sing her Christmas classic. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Most of the other stories don't have such happy endings. Clayton, who sang on the Rolling Stones' 1969 classic "Gimme Shelter," never had a big hit of her own. She just missed the top 40 with a pair of songs: 1975's "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow" (the theme song from TV's "Baretta") and "Yes" (from 1987's "Dirty Dancing").
All these years later, Clayton still seems puzzled and pained by her limited success: "I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star."
"We did everything possible and it just didn't take," says a disappointed Lou Adler, who was the head of Ode Records, Clayton's record company in the 1970s.
Lennear, who sang background vocals for Ike & Tina Turner and Joe Cocker (and who seems to have been the inspiration for the Stones' "Brown Sugar"), left the business completely. For the past 10 to 15 years, she has taught Spanish. She admits that she sometimes has a "gnawing" feeling about leaving music behind. "It's been a regret that I didn't just hang in there," she allows.
A few former background singers moved up to stardom, including the late Luther Vandross, who sang behind David Bowie on "Young Americans," and Sheryl Crow, who sang behind Michael Jackson in the 1980s. (Given her unique vantage point, Crow's negligible contribution here is disappointing. The interviewer should have pushed harder for some insights.)
A movie with a similar theme, "In the Shadow of the Stars," won the Oscar for Documentary Feature 22 years ago. That movie depicted the lives of members of the chorus of the San Francisco Opera company. Another movie with a similar theme was 2002's "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," which focused on the unheralded musicians who played on countless Motown hits.
If "20 Feet" wins on Sunday, this will be the second year in a row that a music-themed doc has won for Documentary Feature. "Searching for Sugar Man" (about obscure American folk musician Sixto Rodriguez) won last year. This would be the first time in more than 40 years that music docs have won back-to-back awards in this category. "Arthur Rubinstein — The Love of Life" and "Woodstock" were the winners for 1969 and 1970, respectively.
Morgan Neville directed "20 Feet." His previous credits include three music-themed films that received Grammy nominations for Best Long Form Music Video: "Muddy Waters Can’t Be Satisfied," "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story," and "Johnny Cash’s America."
Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers jointly produced it. Friesen was president of A&M Records from 1977-1990. He died in December 2012.
The other nominees in the category are "The Act of Killing," "Cutie and the Boxer," "Dirty Wars," and "The Square."