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“Twenty Feet from Stardom”: Documentary Places Backup Singers Front and Center

By Titus Falodun Staff Writer | 7/12/2013, 5:21 p.m.
Darlene Love, backup singing trailblazer, shines on screen in the refreshingly nostalgic music documentary "Twenty Feet from Stardom," which is playing now at local theaters in Atlanta. (Photo by RADiUS-TWC).

Behind soft lips and infectious smiles, backup singers hide their unheralded voices and unforgettable stories.

Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones are just some of the famous singers that lend their vocals in the powerful documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom.” But director Morgan Neville places the spotlight on a group of people who are accustomed to shining in the dark.

In a vocation where they are many times the sunlight that gives the moon its glow, backup singers often exude more talent and energy than their bandleaders. Yet, they are often perfectly content with their background roles.

“They’re the least judgmental people that I’ve ever met,” Neville told The Atlanta Voice. “It’s about helping people. It’s really an altruistic art.”

The film follows notable backup singers, such as Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega, as they share their personal trials and tribulations with the music industry. And in their sharing, there is a common cord that resonates with this string of women.

“I wanted there to be a narrative that held together as a single story but made up of individual stories,” Neville explained. “So, we had to find the right balance of characters, whose experiences echoed each other, harmonized with each others, yet they’re all different in their own way.”

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Morgan Neville directs "Twenty Feet from Stardom." (Photo by RADiUS-TWC).

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and backup singing pioneer Darlene Love embodies the highs and lows backup singers face throughout their careers. Love was not given credit for numerous hits that she wrote and sang, mostly under notorious producer Phil Spector.

“Dealing with Phil Spector was a whole other ballgame that I had never had to deal with before,” Love told The Atlanta Voice, retelling her initial confrontation with Spector. “When (I was) tootling down the street, and I hear my voice coming out of the radio, under ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love,’ I was startled like somebody put a gun to my head.”

Spector released Love’s songs under the names of groups (i.e. The Crystals) without any mention or credit of her.

“So, I turn around and go back to the office,” Love continued. “And his secretary says, ‘He’s not in.' And I say, ‘I know he’s in and you better get out of my way.’”

Love stormed into the office, filled with rage and confusion, and she questioned Spector about what he had done. But Spector only offered vapid responses.

“He’s giving me all these excuses [about] why he did it,” Love said. “And I’m supposed to swallow it?”

Years later, Love sued for royalties and won, only to learn that the statute of limitations would deny her millions she was rightfully owed.

Love also tried her hand at acting, portraying Danny Glover’s wife in the “Lethal Weapon” film franchise, but never became a breakout star.

“[Love’s] put up with more crap than anybody in the music industry,” Neville said. “Yet, she’s not in any way bitter or broken. She’s really somebody who’s indomitable.”