Backup singers step up in ‘20 Feet’

Who dreams of being a backup singer? Our culture is made for the star, the frontman, the diva — with or without Auto-Tune.

This might be why “20 Feet from Stardom,” an otherwise delightful documentary, is tinged with an air of disappointment.

In meeting the full-throated likes of Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear and Lisa Fischer, we understand these are masters of their craft. But the question nags: If they are masters, why aren’t they stars?

“20 Feet” engages that question, although somehow it’s a shame we have to ask it. Why wouldn’t it be enough to make a nice living, meet interesting people and bring beautiful song into the world?

If the soulful Lisa Fischer doesn’t have the killer instinct it takes to sacrifice everything for the spotlight, maybe she’s got it figured out.

The film includes some that made the leap, including Darlene Love and Sheryl Crow, but the focus is mostly on the folks who’ve made a career out of being in the background. Like the 2002 film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” it’s got a built-in hook: all that great music, served up with annotations from musicians.

The stories are good, including accounts of the night Clayton joined the Rolling Stones to add her astonishing vocal to “Gimme Shelter,” a track that still stands as the backup vocalist’s brass ring: stealing a song from the lead. Mick Jagger, interviewed for the film, takes it all in stride.

Other luminaries weigh in: Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting. But there we go again, tracking the stars, when this is about the foot soldiers.

And it’s their show, delightfully so, even if director Morgan Neville doesn’t organize the material in a way that feels entirely intuitive. Despite the choppiness, the prime footage from the concert for Bangladesh or “Stop Making Sense” are exciting.

It’s all about the blend of voices, as we hear when Darlene Love reunites with her former choir-mates for an impromptu piece of vocalizing.

Well, not entirely the voices: Certainly Ike Turner had more in mind when he put the Ikettes in skimpy outfits behind his wife Tina, thus ensuring that future generations of backup singers would have to shimmy as well as sing.

Nostalgia isn’t the only note. Judith Hill, who sang with Michael Jackson, must make decisions: If she accepts supporting jobs now, how will people think of her as a solo artist? It’s a long way from the Ikettes, but the stigma remains.

“20 Feet from Stardom” (three stars)

A somewhat shapeless but mostly delightful documentary about backup singers, those folks who create a nice anonymous blend behind the stars. Interviews create the world of these supporting artists (some of whom simply lack the killer ego needed for the spotlight) and vintage clips give bites of great music.

Rated: PG-13, for language, subject matter.

Showing: Guild 45th.

More in Life

Bob Jepperson’s Wild Love Story

A perfect circle of sounds, pictures and storytelling from the Anacortes author.

‘Shape of Water,’ ‘Big Little Lies’ lead Golden Globe nominations

“The Post” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” also collected a number of nominations.

Mukilteo Police Chief Cheol Kang is known for his people skills

The city’s top cop’s calm demeanor and holistic approach earns him the nickname “Yoda.”

Three posh places to escape this winter in north Puget Sound

Whether it’s wine country, backcountry or the seashore, a relaxing retreat is close at hand.

Getting a glimpse of what’s coming as we age

Everett Public Library reading to help you understand the changes ahead in your elder years.

This author is throwing a virtual party for book lovers

Jennifer Bardsley is hosting a Facebook get-together for young-adult book authors and readers.

Leanne Smiciklas, the friendly lady who served customers of her husband’s Old School Barbeque from a schoolbus parked in front of the Reptile Zoo east of Monroe, has died at 64. (Dan Bates / Herald file)
Without her, beloved BBQ hotspot in Monroe can’t go on

Leanne Smiciklas, who ran the now-closed Old School BBQ along Highway 2 with her husband, died.

Taylor Johnston waters a philodendron at her home on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 in Everett, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Three guidebooks to help the novice houseplant gardener

Indoor plants are popular again — and we’re not talking about your grandma’s African violets.

Bustling Dublin offers big-city sights and Irish charm

The dynamic city has a great story to tell, and people who excel at telling it.

Most Read