Thus Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side begins Twenty Feet from Stardom, a movie ostensibly about backup singers that is really about how we all endure, and perhaps find solace, in life beyond the spotlight. The soundtracks, the visuals, the characters, all stimulate the marrow of Americans of a certain age. We grew up in the golden era of back-ups, when clean scrubbed white bread voices that simply bolstered their lead singers were eclipsed by gospel choir bred sisters who didn’t even pretend to read the music, they just sang from their soul.
The films main characters, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, and the Waters family are hardly household names, yet they are the wall of sound behind Michael Jackson, Sting, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and many more. Their talents are each on par with the stars they serve. Some yearn to claim their own spotlight but luck and fate never align in their direction, while others prefer life in the shadows, acknowledging that to be a star requires more than a great voice, it requires a fierce determination they lack.
The depth of the film comes from the wisdom, trials, and satisfactions these six women find in an industry where winners and losers are differentiated with even more cutthroat precision than in the wider world. Their validation comes from the commentary by Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, headliners who understand the solid foundation these women build for them to stand upon.
Darlene Love is both the most famous of the backup singers and the one whose story is most tragic. Phil Spector simply issued her early recordings with The Blossoms under other names; other faces stole her starring voice. Eventually she became so disillusioned she quit music, cleaned houses, but in her forties finally decided to grind out her own career. For the past thirty years she has claimed her own center mic, and Bette Midler recently inducted her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though Merry Clayton still works it, stardom has remained elusive. Claudia Lennear gave up on Ike Turner and Mick Jagger to teach Spanish. Tata Vega admits that if she’d ever been a star she’d be gone by now; she’s been close enough to the pressure to understand it would have done her in. But Judith Hill, a generation younger than the other women, is awkwardly balanced between earning a livelihood doing back up vocals and stepping out as her own singer songwriter self.
The films greatest satisfaction resides in Lisa Fischer, a solid black woman with short knobs of hair and a twinkling diamond nose pierce. Lisa’s voice is incomparable; the synthesis of Aretha Franklin, Audra McDonald, and Leontyne Price. My eyes and ears focused on her nuanced lips and ethereal sounds when she sang alone, yet in ensemble her voice merged completely with others. Like the rest, Lisa dreamed of a solo career; she even won a Grammy for her first album’s hit, How Can I Ease the Pain. But that second album never materialized, while her prowess as a session singer never faltered. Since 1989 Lisa has toured with The Rolling Stones, and when she struts upstage during Gimme Shelter to rant the female counter “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” (sung by Merry Clayton in the original recording) Mick Jagger has more than met his match. Yet, of all the women in the film, Lisa seems most comfortable with her second fiddle role in life. She carries the regret of a single, childless woman lightly. Her life is not perfection, but she acknowledges and appreciates her compensating satisfactions.
Back up singing is on the wane, the victim of tracking technology and reduced budgets. Perhaps the most remarkable scene of the film is Lisa Fischer, alone at a mic, scatting what could be an aria composed by dawn birds. A second Lisa appears, adding harmony, a third, a fourth. She is her own choir. Until the aria softens, her duplicative images evaporate, and there is only one Lisa left at the mic. All alone she made the wall of sound that used to require a quartet.
Twenty Feet from Stardom is the story of six women’s lives. But it is also the story of yours and mine. Don’t we all contain a star within us? Don’t we all burn to demonstrate what we do best, and what nobody does better? Aren’t we all hampered by the exigencies of luck and fate in claiming what we know should be ours? I have written three books. I could wallpaper a good-sized room with the praising rejections of agents, editors and publishers. Last week an editor called me brilliant and then passed on my manuscript. I am unpublished, and likely to remain so for some time. Not so different from Merry Clayton or Tata Vega, or you.
The universe is endless and there are billions of stars. But between each star is yet more immense space. Most of us dwell in that huge void. We look to the stars to give us light, and they need us to hold them up. Twenty Feet from Stardom gives a greater sense of place to us supporting players everywhere.
Darlene Hall, Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer in Twenty Feet from Stardom.