“20 Feet From Stardom” may possibly be the happiest time you’ll have at the movies all summer, but it comes with a heavy load of frustration. The joy — and at times it’s absolutely transcendent — is in the sound of women singing their big, beautiful hearts out. The pain comes from the anonymity they’ve spent their lives working under and fighting against.
Until now, anyway. The movie’s the latest rock-archeology documentary project, where the spotlight gets cast, finally, on artists you don’t know but should. It’s a rich genre, and recently it has delivered affecting human stories like last year’s Oscar-winning art-house hit “Searching for Sugar Man,” which made a long overdue star of singer-songwriter Rodriguez.
“20 Feet From Stardom” starts out to the strains of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and the choice is appropriate. Morgan Neville’s lovely film celebrates “the colored girls [who] go doot-da-doot-da-doot-doot-da-doot” — the mostly African-American singers whose voices we instantly recognize but whose names didn’t always make it to the liner notes.
Merry Clayton, regal and acerbic, recalls getting the late-night call to provide the vocal apocalypse for the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” — she showed up at the Los Angeles studios in hair curlers and a fur coat — and the director lets us hear her performance on its own track, minus the rest of the band. If anything, it’s even scarier.
Claudia Lennear, sweetly weary, tells of being one of Ike and Tina Turner’s Ikettes (“We were the first action figures of R&B”) and recalls her ’60s Playboy spread and road romance with Mick Jagger with a mixture of embarrassment and nostalgia. Among many other things, “20 Feet From Stardom” testifies to how easily talent could be repackaged and resold as brown-sugar sex appeal by a white-run music industry.
And there’s Darlene Love, who in the words of one of her peers “is the cause of all this.” If there’s a more satisfying career arc, I’d like to hear it. Love sang lead on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “He’s a Rebel,” and dozens of other Phil Spector hits — many credited to other singers — and backup vocals on everything up to and including “The Monster Mash.” Hers is a crucial voice of ’60s pop and you know it very well. But Spector’s control-freak tendencies helped derail Love’s solo career, and by the 1970s she had quit the business and was cleaning homes for a living.
Watch the movie if you want the comeback story — it’s worth the wait — and ponder the commonalities of women like Love, Lennear, Clayton, Dr. Mable John (a former Raelette and current minister, she’s the wise elder of the bunch), Lynn Mabry (that’s her duetting with David Byrne in “Stop Making Sense”), Tata Vega, Gloria Jones, and many others. Almost all of them grew up in the church and had preachers for fathers, and all of them furthered Ray Charles’s mission of bringing African-American soul to the pop charts. For all their talent they were marginalized by a business that saw room for only one Aretha.
“20 Feet From Stardom” is a trove of insiders’ insights. We learn that the singers loved working for ’60s British rockers like Joe Cocker because, in Jones’s words, “he let us be ourselves.” We spend kitchen-table time with the Waters family — Julia, Maxine, and Oren — who provided the backing vocals for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” the opening notes of “The Lion King,” and various wildlife noises for “Avatar.” If you didn’t know that Luther Vandross started as a backup singer, here’s the video of Bowie’s “Young Americans” for proof.
The movie provides context through galvanizing performance clips and interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Jagger, Sting, and rock historian and ex-Del Fuego Warren Zanes. It brings us up to date with a portrait of Judith Hill, who was all set to sing on Michael Jackson’s comeback tour when he died, and whose subsequent career has included the ignominy of recently being eliminated from TV’s “The Voice.”
Mostly, though, Neville attends to the mysteries of the human larynx, and the central figure of “20 Feet From Stardom” may be Lisa Fischer, who resists fame more than she courts it. Fischer has sung backup for Tina Turner, Sting, and on every Rolling Stones tour since 1989; she’s a legend within the industry, and you understand why the moment she opens her mouth and lets loose with a voice that can buckle your knees, not through power but sheer emotional expressiveness. Simply put, she’s one of the great naturals.
For her, that seems to be enough. Fischer actually did have a solo hit early in her career — 1991’s Grammy-winning “How Can I Ease the Pain” — which may be why she now seems content to be little known to the broader public. The movie’s smiling Buddha, Fischer sings her wisdom rather than speaking it. Like the rest of the unknown superstars here, she instantly makes you a convert.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.