July 3, 2013

Backup Singers Finally Get Some Recognition in Pop Music Documentary

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THE UNSUNG HEROES OF THE SINGING WORLD RECEIVE SOME RECOGNITION AT LAST: Some of the many back up singers in the pop music world are shown singing their hearts out in a recording studio. Unfortunately, while waiting and hoping for their breakthrough into the world of stardom, these passionate musicians were underpaid and underappreciated.

Do the names Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, or Lynn Mabry ring a bell? Probably not, yet you are undoubtedly very familiar with their work as backup singers for a variety of musical icons.

For example, it’s Merry’s powerful voice that adds a memorable touch of soul to the Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter” in the brief interlude where she makes the most of the opportunity to belt out the bizarre lyrics “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!” The same can be said of Darlene who not only sang backup on hundreds of hits by everyone from Elvis Presley to The Beach Boys to Tom Jones to Sonny and Cher, but she also anonymously ghost recorded the lead vocals on such 60s anthems as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “He’s a Rebel” and “It’s in His Kiss,” without getting credit or decent compensation.

Sadly, despite their considerable talents, these artist generally have little to show financially for their contributions to rock, soul, and other music genres. Most of the backups are black and female with gospel backgrounds, and have stories about being underpaid, under-appreciated and sometimes outright exploited. For example, Darlene had to clean houses as a maid between gigs in order to survive at a low point in her career.

Most backup singers are frustrated artists who spend years helping others shine while waiting for that big break, that might never come, that could catapult them into the limelight. Finally, thanks to Twenty Feet from Stardom, these neglected singers are finally getting their credit, if not the fortune and fame that has eluded them for so long.

Directed by Morgan Neville, this entertaining and illuminating documentary includes testimonials from Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, and other greats who freely pay tribute.

Excellent (HHHH). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexuality. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Radius-TWC.

—Kam Williams