News Column

Harrington: 'Twenty Feet from Stardom' shines spotlight on backup singers

June 25, 2013

YellowBrix

June 25--Just try to imagine the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" without those dramatic backing vocals.

Attempt the same feat with Steve Winwood's "Higher Love," David Bowie's "Young Americans," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," Roxy Music's "Avalon," Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect."

It's pretty much impossible, isn't it?

That exercise underscores the fact that backing vocals are every bit as important as guitar, bass and drums in popular music history. Yet, sadly, most fans can't name the backing vocalists who appear on some of their favorite tunes.

Director Morgan Neville is hoping to correct that with "Twenty Feet From Stardom," a new documentary about

these unsung singers, which has drawn rave reviews on the festival circuit and is scheduled to open Friday in Bay Area theaters. It's anything but your regular rock doc, which can bank on attracting fans of a well-known subject, and it presented many challenges for the filmmakers.

"This is not an easy documentary to make. This is not just 'pick up your camcorder and edit on your laptop and you're done,' " says Neville during a phone interview, which also included two of the film's stars -- backup singers Merry Clayton and Tata Vega. "It's not cheap to make music documentaries like this. To make a film like that, where you don't have a big name to hang it on, is a little risky."

One of the first hurdles was to get the stars -- the

celebs who have utilized the services of these backup singers -- to play along. That was key, since they are the ones who, in most cases, control the rights to the music that would be used in the film. They were also asked to provide key commentary.

"It took a while for them to just understand what we were doing," Neville says, in regard to trying to enlist the stars' support. "Nobody more knows the value of what (the backup singers) bring than the lead singers themselves. Once they saw what we were doing, and who the main characters were, they signed right up."

Getting Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger and other big-name celebs to appear on camera certainly adds some pizazz to "Twenty Feet From Stardom." Yet, make no mistake, the stars of this film are the backing vocalists -- in particular, Clayton, Vega, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Claudia Lennear.

The film offered the rare chance for these women to step into the spotlight and finally tell their stories.

"It was a big release for me. Because there's a lot of time when you hold stuff in your heart for years and years," says Clayton, an accomplished backup singer best known for her epic contribution to the Stones' "Gimme Shelter."

Ironically, Clayton was initially reluctant to share her tale.

"I was basically holding a lot of stuff for my book, which is soon to be written," she says. "I didn't really want to tell people too much of anything because I didn't want to take away from my book. But when I sat down, the stuff just started to pour out of my spirit.

"(The filmmakers) did a brilliant job of really telling the stories -- and I absolutely appreciate that."

The film specifically deals with backup vocalists, yet Neville says its message can be taken on a much broader level.

"In a (film festival) Q-and-A, a guy stood up and said, 'Look, I've been working at a company for 25 years, and we make a good product, and I'm kind of a middle manager. I realized watching this movie that I'm a backup singer -- we're all backup singers.' He couldn't have said it better," Neville recalls. "As a filmmaker, you hope people react to it at that level. We've been getting that over and over, which I love. It does touch all those issues beyond music -- perseverance, about making the best with your lot in life."

What are Neville's hopes for this film?

"I think that it should be writing the new chapter in all of our lives, but particularly these women," he says. "The film deals with a lot of missed opportunities. But I see it as that maybe everything happens in its own time -- and maybe it was all meant to happen with this film. Who knows? Already, we are getting calls all the time that want to book these ladies on tour.

"Stuff is happening everywhere because of the film. It's the kind of thing that you could only dream of happening when you start making a film like this. But the dreams are coming true."

ROBERT PLANT: Looking for something to do this weekend? Tickets are still available for the Robert Plant gig on Saturday at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The former Led Zep leader is touring with his intriguing Sensational Space Shifters project, and the always entertaining Grace Potter and the Nocturnals open the show. Showtime is 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $45-$125 (www.ticketmaster.com). Plant is also one of the headliners at the 23rd annual High Sierra Music Festival, which runs July 4-7 in lovely Quincy (www.highsierramusic.com).

Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.

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(c)2013 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

Visit the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) at www.contracostatimes.com

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