Oscar-winning ’20 Feet from Stardom’ gives voice to back-up singers

BY Victoria Fleischer  February 25, 2014 at 1:13 PM EST
Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer singing back-up in "20 Feet From Stardom." Courtesy: RADiUS-TWC

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer singing back-up in “20 Feet From Stardom.” Courtesy: RADiUS-TWC

It was the middle of the night in 1969. Merry Clayton, a respected back-up singer, receives a call to help the Rolling Stones. Donning her robe and curlers, Clayton trots over to the studio and records the now-famous screaming vocals on “Gimme Shelter.” In three takes.

Back-up singer Merry Clayton is featured in the documentary "20 Feet from Stardom." Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

Back-up singer Merry Clayton is featured in the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.” Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

“That is probably the greatest back-up performance of all time … that song has such energy and anger — the screaming voice of Merry,” said Morgan Neville, who directed the Oscar-nominated documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.” Clayton is one of the back-up singers heavily featured.

“In the film, we get her isolated vocal track and you actually understand how much she helped that song … even though I heard that song my entire life, I never thought about it.”

That was Neville’s goal for his film: to hear from the voices you recognize, but the names you don’t know.

Listen to Morgan Neville’s entire conversation with Jeffrey Brown:

He got the idea from Gil Friesen, the former president of A&M records and the film’s producer. So Neville started to learn about the industry.

“I started to research it and I couldn’t because there was nothing out there on back-up singers … it was truly invisible and that excited me.”

After some 80 interviews with back-up singers, he began to learn about their world.

Watch the trailer for “20 Feet from Stardom.”

“I had this misconception that back-up singers weren’t as good as lead singers and that was completely wrong. They’re so good, they’re better than lead singers because they have to be perfect all the time.”

And Neville isn’t the only one that recognizes their talent. He spoke to some of the biggest names in the music industry to find out how they felt. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder, to name a few, all had a deep-seated respect for the Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and others.

Lisa Fischer sings in "20 Feet from Stardom." Courtesy: RADiUS-TWC

Lisa Fischer sings in “20 Feet from Stardom.” Courtesy: RADiUS-TWC

“The (back-up) singers themselves appreciated the adoration they got from the English rock stars because they helped liberate them and said we want to work with you, we want to feature you and we want to let you be yourself,” Neville said.

Heading into Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, Neville feels proud and knows that the singers do as well. In fact, he’s bringing with him all of the back-up singers featured in “20 Feet from Stardom.”

“20 Feet from Stardom” is nominated for Best Documentary at the 2014 Academy Awards. The film is currently available in select theaters and is streaming on iTunes and on Amazon. Tune in on March 2 to see how the film fairs.