News Column

Backup singers tune into hope, heartbreak in 'Twenty Feet From Stardom'

July 4, 2013

YellowBrix

July 04--"It can be a pretty long walk," Bruce Springsteen says in "Twenty Feet From Stardom," from backup singer to spotlight.

And a walk that's too long for many to make, if the bittersweet documentary by Morgan Neville is any gauge.

Working with longtime producer Gil Friesen -- who died in December at age 75 -- Neville explores the careers and music of some of pop's top backup singers. Their stories could double as a refresher course in pop-music history.

They also serve as a cautionary tale about the long-shot nature of fame.

In the 1950s and '60s, singers were called on to provide color and light to a stunning array of musical styles. In one of the movie's funnest moments, Darlene Love is reunited with two of her singing partners after more than three decades, and they quickly run through their resume -- "Da Doo Run Run," "Monster Mash," "That's Life" -- singing with everyone, one recalls, "from Buck Owens to James Brown."

Even in the background, backup singers set the tone. "There's a guy out front, testifying, and then there's sort of the community behind him -- you know, amen-ing," Springsteen says. "...That was the sound of worldly knowledge."

Then, in the late 1960s and '70s, British rockers, eager to burnish their sound with more soul, gave backup singers free rein. Merry Clayton recounts being woken up in the middle of the night and driven to a recording studio to sing the haunting backing vocals on "Gimme Shelter." Watching Clayton and Mick Jagger as they listen to her vocal -- isolated from the rest of the classic track -- speaks volumes about its continuing power.

Such showcases helped make some backup singers stars; for example, there's a great clip of David Bowie performing "Young Americans" with a diverse backing group that includes a young Luther Vandross.

But for most backup singers taking that leap proved difficult.

Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder and several other amphitheater-filling stars relate the vital role that backup singers played in music of that time -- a role that's faded since the 1990s, thanks to home recording and rising production costs.

But if music has the power to connect, "Twenty Feet From Stardom" shows it's those backup voices making the connection. More often than not, one producer notes, "you find yourself singing what the background singers were singing."

Twenty Feet From Stardom???

Behind the scenes: Produced By Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers. Directed by Morgan Neville.

Rated: PG-13; language

Approximate running time:

91 minutes

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(c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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