Skip to main content

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer at the mike for a rendition of Lean on Me in the film 20 Feet from Stardom.

In the early sixties, singer Darlene Love's mighty voice, often recorded under pseudonyms, helped hold up producer Phil Spector's legendary Wall of Sound. Today, she's a grand diva of rock with annual Christmas appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. But in between, the singer had some tough years. At one point, she was surviving by working as a house cleaner, when the sound of her own voice on the radio reminded her that her purpose in life was to sing.

Love is the best-known of the mostly African-American women portrayed in Morgan Neville's big-spirited documentary about how gospel choruses became a defining element in popular music, from early sixties pop and R&B, through seventies and eighties arena rock, and on to Disney soundtracks. The best behind-the-music documentary since Standing in the Shadows of Motown, 20 Feet from Stardom introduces us to a series of extraordinary vocalists like Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer (winner of a Grammy in 1992 as a solo artist) who, for various reasons of chance, character and social barriers, did not become the next Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston. The stories of the singers' careers are told through contemporary interviews and archival performances, supplemented by a chorus of commentary provided by such limelight hogs as Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger.

You may never hear the Rolling Stones's Gimme Shelter the same way again after hearing Jagger's and Clayton's separate accounts of the recording of the song. Summoned from her home, late at night, Merry Clayton arrived to punch home the hair-raising line in Gimme Shelter ("Rape, murder – it's just a shot away"), pregnant, wearing a mink coat, silk pyjamas and curlers.

At times, these singers' versatility has kept them both regularly employed and deliberately anonymous. Darlene Love, for example, explains how her first group, the Blossoms, could "sound white" when called upon. In other cases, their identifiable vocals mark the secret affinity between different artists. Their résumés, which pop up onscreen in the form of a studio call sheet, draw the lines between Ike and Tina Turner and Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker. Some sounds stretch across the decades in different contexts: The brother-and-sisters act the Waters (Julia, Maxine and Oren) did backup to Donna Summer's disco, Paul Simon's global music, and appeared on the soundtracks to The Lion King and Avatar.

The popularity of the gospel rock chorus went into decline in the nineties, as small studio budgets and digital recording became the norm, yet the distance from the back to the front of the stage remains a long one.

A contemporary perspective is offered by Judith Hill, a singer and songwriter (and contestant on the TV show The Voice) who rehearsed with Michael Jackson for his abortive This Is It tour. Hill, when not swapping harmonies with her more venerable soul sisters in a performance staged for the film, talks about backup singing as a potential "springboard" that can become "quicksand" when a singer settles into the role of making other stars sound good rather than taking the risk to own the spotlight.