Behind the voices of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Sting, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, and many others, were Black background singers that did more than just sing the hook, but give these musicians soul! This is their stories.
Review (with Spoilers)
Though many of the names in the film you may not know, the songs they have sung are familiar. Be it “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynard Skynard, the music within Disney movies, or the songs of Whitney Houston, the voices of the featured musicians are within some of your favorite songs, and this film features the ones who made a career out of being in backup; who tried for stardom and got sent back to being backup; one who is on her way to being a star; and a handful who gave up the life because they lost the desire for it. Either way, all together, you are treated to what is almost like an hour and a half version of Unsung, from TV One, made into a movie.
Characters & Story
In the film, there are a handful of names which are commenters. Be it the legendary singers like Sting, Stevie Wonder, and even archival footage from Luther Vandross, or the backup singers like Dr. Mable John, who worked with Ray Charles; Darlene Love and Fanita James, who opened the doors for Black background singers; Lisa Fischer, whose voice is perhaps the most phenomenal of all the featured artists; and Judith Hill, who perhaps you may recognize from singing with Michael Jackson during his This Is It concert film; we hear the story of multiple musicians, in their own right, who have a love for singing.
With the older crew, they give their history in the game from start to present, and they tell us about some of the bumps which got in their way. But, with Judith Hill, the sole young talent focused on, you hear about some of the issues about transitioning in modern times from background to lead. And, the real heart of the story, to me, deals with not just the power of background music, but the power of Black women’s voices and how they, and the training that comes from doing gospel music, revolutionized the music industry. Be it Ray Charles using them for his sound, or The Rolling Stones using them to give them a sense of soul. The movie maybe about background acts, but its heart truly is about giving these woman, the often unsung, the recognition which is possibly only given by those who are true, and studious, music lovers.
I haven’t covered many documentaries, but the few I have all are deeply informative. Whether it be Paris is Burning, which gave viewers a look into 90s gay culture, and ball culture; Blackfish which exposed Sea World; or The Invisible War which put a spotlight on sexual assault in the military; I have been lucky enough to find documentaries which not only inform, but tell a story which may not have some glamorous movie star playing a role, but instead they have people who were actually there, experiencing, witnessing, and living a life worth telling. And with 20 Feet From Stardom, things are no different. Each woman, and the handful of men, tell us about a subject matter which probably isn’t too often noted. Yes, you may notice that most singers, no matter what their background, have Black background singers, but you don’t take much note of them. This film though gives them a voice, let’s their personalities shine, and reminds us that Tamar Braxton probably wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last, who was singing in the back and was deserving of being in the front. Luther Vandross was a background singer, Mariah Carey did background vocals, and look where they are now.
But, as Lisa Fischer notes, while the glamor of being in the front is nice, that isn’t the dream of everyone in the business. And with her, she shows the other side of being in the background. Yes, you get praised and people may wonder why you aren’t out in front, but some people like playing their position. Being able to have that memorable moment in song and then step back and live a normal life helps her explain that there are really varying paths a background singer can have. Some people had paths like Claudia Lennear, where some of the people she worked for were not just looking for a voice, but a nice piece of ass. Then there are people like Judith Hill who are in limbo, trying to afford being in the front, but not getting the financial backing to do so. And the story really tries to give everyone their time to tell their story so that no one is just there. Making this, certainly, not definitive, but so informative that it lays the foundation for anyone who has thoughts, and ideas, of getting into background music, or someone who wants to learn about the influence of background singers, especially Black ones, over generations.
In all honesty, I would have liked for the troubles of transitioning or being a background singer to be more elaborated on, but perhaps what was given was just enough. Outside of that, there isn’t much to complain about, unless some acts you wanted to know more about than others. Or if you wanted to learn more about how it is in modern times.
Overall: Worth Seeing
I love this film. I think it is worth seeing and I wish this film had a soundtrack because it contains so many songs which I have forgotten about over the years. And, with it being nominated for an Oscar, I hope it wins.