Pop music’s dirty vocal secret

Morgan Neville’s documentary 20 Feet From Stardom explores the history and unheralded contribution of back-up singers to well-known pop music.

20 Feet From Stardom

You’ve sung along to them countless times and they perform to crowds the world over. Together, they’re likely behind more No. 1 hits than the Beatles — and that’s why you’ve probably never heard of them. The musicians featured in director Morgan Neville’s documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, are paid to stay behind the stars as back-up singers.

It turns out that a small core of singers form an industry secret, linking decades and genres of music in a way that no famed producer or studio ever did. These performers have strutted and crooned behind a who’s who of music: everyone from Michael Jackson, Elvis to the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. And, much more so than the famously self re-inventive Bowie, their CVs span a true diversity of genres, as well as film soundtracks such as The Lion King and Avatar.

Neville introduces his subjects through archival footage and interviews with both back-up singers and their famous counterparts including Stevie Wonder, Sting and Bruce Springsteen. We learn that back-up singers are sometimes even responsible for lead vocals — told to stay hidden behind the names of others as “ghost” singers. For some as their careers progress, they win Grammys, or eventually get inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame — but the back-up singers remain part of everyday society, not negotiating with fame, cleaning toilets, working as single mothers.

The documentary’s main players are mostly African-American women, key among them Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, Judith Hill and the Waters sisters (joined by a brother). Here lies the strength of the film. This is not only a fun-to-watch primer on pop music through a new lens — but a thought-provoking story that explores why and how people chase a life in the biz, and  touches on gender, race, religion and class. Some of these women are told they won’t make it solo because Aretha and Whitney have already filled a quota.

Music may be considered a man’s world — but Neville shows it wouldn’t be much without a back-up singer.■

20 Feet From Stardom starts Friday at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc)

Leave a Reply