Friday saw the beginning of the 30th annual Miami International Film Festival. The opening night film of the Miami Film Festival was the documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” directed by Morgan Neville (who answered audience questions in a Q&A). The film, which told the highs and lows of the lives of many legendary backup singers, wowed the crowd, as well as a surprise performance from the film’s star, Darlene Love.
The film, which was given the honor of premiering at this year’s Sundance, is a stellar film that honestly explores the lives of several backup singing legends, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, the Waters Family, Gloria Jones, Claudia Lennear, Táta Vega and relative newcomer Judith Hill.
Just as intriguing as the film’s amazing and deft telling of the signers’ battles with studios and producers (such as Love’s battle with producer Phil Spector), brief solo careers and struggles with trying to find their place in the music industry was the background argument that most–if not all–of modern music rests on the backs of the black church voice (many of the singers having honed their voices first in their church choirs). Another theme laced in an out of the narrative were the ideas of self-worth and self-knowledge. Even though singing backup have given the women highlighted in the documentary tremendous lives, singing with talents such as David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles and Sting, just to name a few, the film suggests that some of the singers might not have been able to reach the heights they wanted to achieve due to settling for less in the business or opting out of the business altogether (in the case of Lennear, who was an Ikette and worked with Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker and many others, but now works as a Spanish teacher).
Others, like Fischer, who’s 1990s solo album won her a Grammy, had to realize that they were much happier sharing their talents with their peers behind the scenes instead of as a solo act. Not succeeding at a solo act also had a reward for Vega–she said in the film that if she had succeeded, she might not have been with us today–one can infer she meant that the internal and external pressures of being a solo singer, combined with the subversive nature of stardom, could have killed her.
Still others, like Love (the lead of the first black session singing group The Blossoms and voice behind The Crystals hit, “He’s a Rebel”) and Clayton (a former Raelette and vocal powerhouse behind The Rolling Stones hit “Gimme Shelter”) were able to achieve the autonomy they wanted and thrive in their solo careers late in life.
One story that was similar to Fischer’s was The Waters Family, a family of singers who have contributed their voices to hundreds of classic albums and films, including “The Lion King” and “Avatar.” They, like Fischer, seemed most content in the background, being part of history without having the spotlight put upon them.
Hill’s story is also a little different from the others. Starting out as a backup singer for Michael Jackson during the rehearsals for his final tour, Hill’s career took a turn for the unexpected with Jackson’s untimely passing. After singing at his funeral, she soon had the spotlight put upon her, and, even though her most recent gig of singing with Stevie Wonder was amazing, she decided to push herself to what she really wanted to be–a solo singer. Her story is still being written, but one hopes she can become the solo artist she’s always seen herself becoming.
The stylish, gripping and thoroughly entertaining film, coupled with a tremendous live performance from Love herself, left the crowd at the MIFF opening night standing on their feet more than once.
“Twenty Feet from Stardom” is expected in theaters nationwide June 14.