I was really lucky to catch a new documentary on a flight from Perth to Sydney last week: 20 Feet From Stardom directed by Morgan Neville. It tells the stories of backup singers.
One of the things I loved the most about the film was placing a concept I thought I knew (backup singers) into a clear and specific cultural and historical context. Backup singers as we know them came out a period of rock and pop singers (and producers) wanting to inject African-American music into their own music – amazing voices, the ability to improvise and harmonise and a soulfulness coming out of gospel traditions. In fact, all up it doesn’t seem like there’s not a lot of them around: there’s a limit to the number of singers and bands that hire them and it seems that in this modern age of auto-tuning and the different sounds of today’s bands that gigs for back-up singers are even less.
This movie takes a close look at the lives and careers of a number of different and engaging back-up singers, from Darlene Love who struggled and was uncredited for decades before finally being recognised in recent years to the gorgeous Judith Hill, a young woman trying to make the transition from back-up singer to solo artist. Two other main storylines belong to the funky Tata Vega, who never managed to get the solo success she wanted, and Lisa Fischer, respected by her peers as having a voice with absolute star quality but who was never truly interested in solo success and is happy to help other people make beautiful music.
It really does go into interesting questions of life: the capriciousness of fame and fortune, luck – good and bad (which at times was not luck at all but institutional racism and prejudice that robbed black women of social power), the meaning of success and the spotlight, and the idea of a ‘calling’. Because Lisa Fischer was so engaging and seems happy with her life and choices, I thought the film was going to lean towards that narrative, of a backup singer satisfied to not be in the spotlight, but other less happy narratives came into play after that.
Throughout the film, there are fun interviews with famous singers (Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bruce Springsteen), some smart and informative cultural analysis – and lots of singing… really beautiful singing.
(As an aside, the Virgin flight entertainment guide managed to use as a still for the movie a photo of a white back-up singer who is barely in the film. Fail.)