“Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.” Think of that line from the infamous Rolling Stones song Gimme Shelter. Who sang it? Merry Clayton, one of the singers profiled in the stunning new documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” which premiered at Sundance and was screened at South by Southwest, followed by a surprise performance that generated several standing ovations from the audience at Austin’s Paramount Theater.
If you haven’t been among the select few to see the film, directed by Morgan Neville, you will have the opportunity soon–because RADiUS-TWC (The Weinstein Company) picked it up at Sundance for theatrical distribution beginning on June 14.
With thrilling archival footage of rock ‘n roll icons like David Bowie and Joe Cocker intermixed with current-day interviews of musical greats Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Sheryl Crowe, Bette Midler and producer Lou Adler, the doc shows and tells what life was like behind the music for the mainly black and female background singers who lent their soaring voices to many of the biggest records of the past four decades.
Even as tellingly, it shows how they’re doing now. And with a few notable exceptions, like recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love, they lead lives like many people–struggling to make ends meet—at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the rock legends with whom they shared the stage.
While heartbreaking in parts, the film pays tribute to those whose voices who added immeasurably to the greatness of popular music—putting them at center stage to reflect on the sacrifices and rewards of their careers spent harmonizing just feet away from superstardom.
A common theme runs through the personal stories—the desire to become a solo artist—and women like Love, Clayton and Lisa Fischer tell of the struggles they faced in doing so.
But the dream doesn’t die despite persistent challenges, and is exemplified in the story of acclaimed vocalist Judith Hill, who was to be part of Michael Jackson’s “This is It” huge London shows. She would have been featured in MJ’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”–you can see her in rehearsals with him in the Kenny Ortega-directed film– as well as on other numbers. While periodically doing backup since Michael’s shocking death, she’s intently focused on becoming a solo performer and recently performed at the Academy Awards Governors Ball.
After the final credits rolled, Hill took to the stage to perform, followed by Love, with a heartfelt rendition of “Lean On Me,” emblematic of backup singers’ role in shaping musical history. The crowd went nuts, showering them with love and admiration, and Neville revealed plans for a soundtrack album. There’s also talk of a tour, or at least a few shows featuring these talented people, many of whom are just now getting their due.
Meanwhile, Neville also announced that Hill will be featured on NBC’s “The Voice” when its new season premieres March 25. Here’s a taste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4zG-WfHGtA