“20 Feet From Stardom” is a joyous yet mysterious documentary about the lives and careers of the backup singers—mostly women and mostly black—who have provided, well, background music for the songs by which we have measured our days since roughly the end of World War II. It is joyous because the music is such a potent reminder of pleasures past, yet not entirely forgotten. It is mysterious because these women, though obviously gifted singers, have not for the most part enjoyed great fame or wealth. They did all right. We have the testimony of Sting and Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler, among others, that they are well respected in the music business and “20 Feet,” well directed by Morgan Neville, gives ample evidence of the unknown singers’ continuing high spirits. They are a peppy, plucky lot.
But that’s where the mystery enters into their story. Most of them, it seems, came out of the call-and-response tradition of the black church and most of them had ambitions beyond singing in backup groups. At various times, most attempted solo careers, of which only a few successfully panned out. There is some combination of luck and circumstances that did not happen for what seems to be the majority of the singers. Sometimes, they were flat-out cheated of their rightful due—including, in some instances, credit for songs they actually recorded. On the evidence of “20 Feet,” only a minority of these women achieved stable careers, mostly, it seems, because they hooked up with groups like Sting’s and Springsteen’s and happily stayed the course with them. Of those shown here, only Merry Clayton achieved something like real stardom.
Yet a surprising number of them did achieve something like happiness, which seems to be not only a mystery but a miracle. A couple of the backup singers attribute this state to the simple joy they find in what they do. Put simply, they love singing. It fills their hearts as it fills their lungs. You could not stay down too long if you were belting out the songs that are their reason for living. There’s probably a more complex explanation for the infectious quality of this movie, but this is basically what’s on offer and we’ll have to live with it.
Happily so. For it is a movie from which sour grapes are almost entirely absent. Hard work and a certain amount of disappointment are part of all these lives. But I can’t remember a nonfiction film so full of good cheer. These are obviously up-and-down careers—can’t be anything else in the work they have chosen. But the down parts are not much spoken about. A story Clayton tells is emblematic of the film’s prevailing spirit. She was pregnant, her hair in curlers, ready for bed when the phone rang and she was asked to report to a studio to record a track for what turned out to be The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Needless to say, she tells the anecdote with a laugh.
Meanwhile, the music, which is virtually wall-to-wall, keeps on soaring. And the ladies keep on trucking. I’m sorry to seem so ga-ga about “20 Feet From Stardom,” but it has been a long time since I’ve had so much fun at a movie. And derived so much—no other word for it—inspiration from one either. Backup singing, it reports, is a declining art. But it had its time, and this lovely film rescues it from oblivion. Ah, here’s the word I’ve been searching for: blissful.