"Twenty Feet From Stardom," a documentary about the trials, tribulations and invaluable contributions of backup singers throughout the history of pop music, contains a short sequence about one of the greatest vocal performances on record. If you're a serious rock fan, you may already have an inkling of what it is.
It's Merry Clayton's transcendent performance on the Rolling Stones' 1969 track "Gimme Shelter," of course. Director Morgan Neville (a Grammy winner whose other documentary subjects have included Hank Williams and Stax Records) sets up the backstory by interviewing both Mick Jagger and Clayton, who was pregnant during the recording and had some qualms about the sinister material. The payoff is when Neville plays us the song with the Stones stripped away so we hear only Clayton's famous, spine-tingling shriek: "Rape! Murder!" It's the defining moment of one of the Stones' definitive songs.
And yet: Beyond rock geeks, does anyone know Clayton's name? That's the point of "Twenty Feet From Stardom," whose title refers to the short but often uncrossable distance between that row of microphones upstage and the spotlight downstage. Most backup singers have bigger dreams that rarely come to fruition. We hear from Claudia Linnear, whose credits include Ike and Tina Turner and George Harrison, but who gave up music to teach Spanish; from Tata Vega, a flamboyant personality who signed with Motown but now tours with Elton John; and from Lisa Fischer, who might have been another Toni Braxton but now tours with the Stones. Neville's film is filled with images of vinyl records that you probably never bought.
The exception to the rule is Darlene Love, this film's central heroine, whose tale is fairly well-known: Despite appearing on too many Phil Spector records to count, Love wound up cleaning houses in middle age but staged a hard-won comeback in the 1980s. In 2011, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The real wisdom in "Twenty Feet From Stardom," however, comes from lesser-knowns who have learned to take pride in their work regardless of reward. Janice Pendarvis, a vocalist for Stevie Wonder, puts it nicely: "When you think of all the memorable hooks that people sing," she says, "they're singing with us."
PLOT A documentary about backup singers whose voices, if not their names, have gone down in rock and roll history.
RATING PG-13 (mild language)
BOTTOM LINE This illuminating documentary looks into a small corner of the music industry to find deeper truths about talent, artistry and success.