Honoring the backup singers

Jo Lowry (left), Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer sing "Lean on Me."

The idea for 20 Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville's exploration of the talents and travails of pop and rock backup singers, came to producer Gil Friesen after smoking a joint at a Leonard Cohen concert.

While getting lost in the music, the record man (who died in December) began thinking about Cohen's backup singers. Who were they? What were their lives like?

According to Warren Zanes, the former Del Fuegos guitarist who served as the film's consulting producer, Friesen referred to that indulgence as "the most expensive joint I ever smoked."

That's because 20 Feet From Stardom is quite an ambitious film, as music documentaries go. It attempts, and succeeds, in telling a shadow history of rock-and-roll from the perspective of the women who brought the sound of the African American church to such rock standards as the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter," David Bowie's "Young Americans," and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."

Rather than focus on one artist, 20 Feet pulls together the stories of six women, including Darlene Love, the wronged powerhouse behind Phil Spector's Wall of Sound; Merry Clayton, who sang on "Gimme Shelter"; Lisa Fischer, who has toured with the Stones since '89; and Claudia Lennear, the '70s sex symbol backup singer after whom "Brown Sugar" is said to be named.

In casting a wide net, 20 Feet ends up including a great deal of great music, and gets clearance to use it in a commercially released film, a pitfall that has kept other wide-ranging docs (like The Wrecking Crew, the 2008 story of Los Angeles studio musicians), from making it to theaters.

20 Feet starts with Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and includes such hits as Talking Heads' "Slippery People" and Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," in a new version with Love on lead and Fischer, Judith Hill, and Sting's backup Jo Lowry supporting her.

Many of the singers' employers, such as Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, and Stevie Wonder, are featured in the film. (Somewhat criminally, it is their names - rather than those of the backup singers - that are on the poster.) Springsteen talks about the level of ego and narcissism it takes to make it as a marquee attraction; Jagger remembers how "quite hot" Lennear was, back in the day.

The film explores the women's roots, which lead back to the church, and examines why they failed to earn headlining status. In some cases the answer involves the machinations of the music business (in the case of Love). With Clayton, it's head-scratching bad luck and the whims of the marketplace; with Fischer, a preference for playing a supporting role.

20 Feet's satisfying triumph, though, is to finally give a group of supremely talented women the respect - and the spotlight - that they deserve.


20 Feet From Stardom ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Morgan Neville. With Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Patti Austin, Dr. Mabel John. Distributed by Radius-TWC.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (language)

Playing at: Ritz 5

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, ddeluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at inquirer.com/inthemix.

20 Feet from Stardom

Directed by Morgan Neville. With Bruce Springsteen, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Tata Vega, Darlene Love. Distributed by Radius-TWC.

Running time: 1 hours, 30 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some strong language and sexual material).