Culture / Film

Review: Twenty Feet from Stardom @ Glasgow Film Theatre

Part of the Glasgow Film Festival, this musical documentary by Morgan Neville shines the spotlight on some of the most famous singers that you’ve never heard of.

Although this documentary is peppered with music heavyweights such as Mick Jagger, Sting, Barbara Streisand, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, Twenty Feet from Stardom lets background singers take centre stage. Director Morgan Neville tells the untold stories of women trying to step out from the crowd and have their own voices heard.

Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side is used as the intro music and the controversial lyric “And the coloured girls go… Doo do doo do doo do do doo…” is quoted early on as an apt reference to the music scene in the 1960s. Background troupes such as the “Ikettes” (who supported Ike and Tina Turner) and the Raelettes (who sang for Ray Charles) were in vogue in the ‘60s and this trend grew ever more popular and these groups are shown to become an integral part of the music scene.

As we are taken on an electric tour of music from the 1960s till now, we are introduced to some prolific background singers who have sung with many of the greats and who have tried their hand at solo careers. Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear all have their personal and professional life stories detailed, from the highs of singing at the world’s most famous music venues to the lows of having no recognition for your work and the fight to emerge amongst a sea of struggling singers.

One thing has to be said for this film: the music is sensational. The mix of ‘60s Motown, rock n’ roll and gospel is heartily uplifting and the real highlights of the film come when the incredible individual singers’ voices are showcased. Lisa Fisher’s solos are nothing short of mesmerising and the moment where Merry Clayton’s vocals are isolated on the Rolling Stones track ‘Gimme Shelter’ is spine-tingling. The film mirrors the experiences of these talented women with the young Judith Hill, who has come tantalisingly close to breaking out due to her performance at Michael Jackson’s memorial service, but still hasn’t been able to escape the shadows of background singing.

The singers take their shot at stardom with varying degrees of success, and it is sobering to hear them tell stories of being unable to pay their bills or having to take odd jobs to support their children while the screen plays out footage of them accompanying the Rolling Stones and lingers on their ill-fated solo album covers.

With a gorgeous soundtrack, staggering talent and an honest portrayal of fame and the music industry, Twenty Feet from Stardom is essential viewing for music lovers.

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