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Culture Documentary

20 Feet from Stardom

Darlene Love (Photo by Graham Willoughby/Tremolo Productions)


20 Feet from Stardom

Her voice trembling, eyes watering, Merry Clayton admits, “I felt that if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

From Ray Charles to Sheryl Crow to Elton John, musical stardom has afforded many pop icons a measure of earthly glory. But in this documentary, the spotlight finally hits some of the 20th century’s greatest back-up singers like Clayton—people you’ve heard, but never heard of.  

Why haven’t the African-American women featured here become lead singers? “It’s a bit of a walk,” Bruce Springsteen explains, “that walk to the front is complicated.”

The hurdles don’t include lack of talent. Interviews with Sting, Springsteen, Bette Midler, and other stars testify to the abilities of these women. Plus, a soundtrack of pop/rock classics gives viewers firsthand evidence. Merry Clayton’s story of recording vocals for “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones—in her pajamas in the dead of night no less—takes a spine-tingling turn when her voice track is isolated and played for a newly impressed Mick Jagger.

So what kept them from realizing their dreams? Producers, for one. Darlene Love explains how Beatles producer Phil Spector recorded her voice, and then—against his word—released it on another artist’s record. But most of these artists aren’t quite sure why their solo careers flopped, and the critics aren’t that insightful. Several point to a plantation mentality, but neglect the possibility of flaws in costume, material, or timing.

What’s clear, though, is that the faith of these women helped shape the sound of a generation: Nearly all grew up as ministers’ daughters in call and response church choirs.  

While this PG-13 film occasionally flounders on the sex, drug, and rock ’n’ roll cliché (including foul language), it also hints at a grander tale. “God gave me this talent, and I intend to use it,” Darlene Love says of her success. And those like Clayton who keep singing from the shadows offer hope of a higher call and response.