"Singing 'oohs' and 'aahs,' it's kind of fun for a minute," says Mick Jagger in 20 Feet From Stardom, a long-overdue documentary about the lives and artistic contributions of background singers in popular music. "But I'm not sure I'd like to do it for a living." Jagger's callous remarks are uncharacteristic of both the singer and the film, but they help director Morgan Neville make a case for the fascinating idea that the main difference between virtually unknown background singers and household names like Jagger is one of personality. It's certainly not a matter of talent — every background singer profiled in 20 Feet From Stardom can sing circles around Jagger and many of his peers. But as the stories told in the film illustrate so well, there are many factors besides ability that shape a person's life, even among the most gifted artists.
Those stories date to a time when background singers were exclusively white and read their parts off sheet music, and individuality of voice was desired by neither the artists out front nor record producers. That all changed with a group known as The Blossoms — led by the incomparable Darlene Love — and a producer named Phil Spector. Like so many background singers, The Blossoms learned to blend their voices in church. But in the music industry, Spector virtually owned Love and her fellow singers, going so far as to record them and release their records under other artists' names without apology. 20 Feet From Stardom lovingly traces the history of background singers as popular music rapidly moved in the direction of raw and idiosyncratic performance thanks to the cultural onslaught of rock 'n' roll in the 1960s.
The film brings that evolution to life by incorporating joy-inducing vintage clips from artists like the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, David Bowie, Talking Heads and The Rolling Stones in which world-class background singers like Lisa Fischer and Merry Clayton come dangerously close to stealing the show. The film reaches its peak by bringing Clayton back to the studio where she recorded her iconic vocal parts for the Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Clayton relishes the chance to recount how she received a late-night call to sing on a record by a visiting English rock band, arrived at the studio in hair curlers and pajamas, and was taken aback when the band asked her to sing lyrics like "rape, murder, they're just a shot away." The smile on her face speaks volumes as she recalls resolving to "blow them out of the room" with her second take. Hearing her performance isolated and played back at full volume in that studio is enough to give you chills.
The film loses steam in its final half hour by focusing on a series of mostly failed attempts by strong-willed background singers to launch fulfilling solo careers. But it's an unavoidable part of the story. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, who appears throughout the film to lend perspective, "You got to have that narcissism, that ego. It can be a pretty long walk" to the spotlight. It's a lucky thing for us that some artists are content to remain in the shadows. — KEN KORMAN