20 Feet From Stardom unearths the dynamic stories of the backup singers behind many of America’s legendary popular bands. The film pays tribute to the unknown musicians who dedicated their talent and careers to creating the look and feel of popular music during a time of tumult and unrest in American history. 20 Feet From Stardom blends rare performance and archival footage with intimate interviews of the faithful protagonists of popular music – the backup singers. The film focuses on the stories Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, The Waters Family and Judith Hill. A superstar cast of figures, including Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting, trumpet the legendary talent of these lesser-known musicians. These gifted artists embody a range of styles, genres and eras of popular music, while also embracing their unique struggles to exist in the background of celebrity.
Music has always been a unifying medium in the American cultural experience. 20 Feet From Stardom emerges at a critical time in current American history when the idea of a “post racial” society is held in perilous balance amidst ongoing demands for justice for communities of color. Forty years later, the societal ramifications stemming from the mass incarceration of people of color, including the increased violence towards young black and Latino youth at the hands of law enforcement, stand in sharp contrast to the political gains made by earlier generations of the Civil Rights Movement. In this vein, the film serves as an historic bridge between past and present social justice struggles in America.
Neville introduces the film with the rifting lyrics “and the colored girls sing/doo, da-doo, da-doo, doo doo doo doo...” from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” This lyric provides the raison d’être for the American popular music industry - blending the sounds and diverse images of backup singers transformed and exalted American music culture. As an audience, the film implores us to understand the complex nature of race in privileging white musicians while mythologizing black musicians as natural talents in music and performance. Enter: backup singers Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and Claudia Lennear – an unexpected group of protagonists whose voices of activism provide a subtle soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century.
As women artists, their gallant integration into the music industry through active presence in studio sessions, television, radio and on stage, created a pathway for musicians of color in ensuing years. Creatively, these musical pioneers blended gospel, rhythm and blues voices with the new sounds of rock and soul to challenge assumptions about race, gender and equality. These heralded backup singers crossed interracial and international borders to honor their existence as musicians and human beings. The film further illuminates their legacy through the stories of current day backup singers struggling with the challenges of anonymity, authenticity and sexism in the music industry.
Ultimately, the film presents music and musicians as levers in the 20th century Civil Rights Movement. The timing of its release is both retrospective and reflective given the fragile race and ethnic relations presently facing the nation.