20 FEET FROM STARDOM turns the spotlight away from the biggest music stars of the last 60 years and onto their backup singers. These singers—often women, mostly black—are responsible for some of the most memorable sounds of popular music. Most of us don't even know their names.
This documentary is fabulous for its music, interviews, and amazing concert and studio footage spanning several decades. But it's more than just eye candy for wannabe rockers and sentimental boomers; 20 Feet from Stardom also asks some big questions about fame, art, and giving credit where it's due. The background singers interviewed—who worked with Michael Jackson, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and just about everybody else—express varying degrees of frustrations at never getting their own break. And while they could be bitter for having their voices used to make white men rich (wouldn't you have been bitter?), they still make it clear that they loved being a part of it. "Once you get hooked on music, you're fucked," says one of them, David Lasley. Whether he meant good "fucked" or bad "fucked" is left open to interpretation.
And oh, the stories they have! Did you know that Merry Clayton, the "RAPE MURDER IT'S JUST A SHOT AWAY" lady on "Gimme Shelter," was pulled out of bed in the middle of the night on a Mick Jagger whim to see if adding her voice could amp up the Stones' new song, but that it almost didn't happen because black women at the time were told to sing white, but Clayton asked if she could let 'er rip, and they said, "What the hell," and the result was one of the most iconic hooks of rock and roll? I did not know that. Now I do. Cool, right?!
20 Feet from Stardom is required viewing for all music nerds, pop culture nerds, history nerds, other classes of nerds, and most non-nerds with taste.