20 Feet from Stardom

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Director: Morgan Neville, Out now

Morgan Neville's Academy Award winning documentary tells the story of backing vocalists, or backup singers, and their struggles in the music industry since the 1960s.

They were mainly African American women and most people don't know their names, but they featured in and brought to life many of the most famous pop songs of their day.

The film starts in an era when the music industry was dominated by white people, and this included backup singers. The mould was then broken by black female singers from gospel church choir backgrounds.

The film touches on the civil rights movement and the major political upheavals in the US in the 1960s and 70s, although many of the singers felt insulated from the surrounding atmosphere as a result of focusing on their musical careers.

Merry Clayton sang backup on Lynyrd Skynyrd's reactionary song "Sweet Home Alabama" at a period when black people still faced segregation and racism in Alabama and across the South. She told her colleague Clydie King,'We have to sing that lyric, "Sweet Home Alabama," like we're angry. Sing it through your teeth.' And I'm glad we did. It's one of the greatest sessions I've ever done."

Sometimes the backup singers faced sexist exploitation. Claudia Lennear explained in the film how, when she was part of Ike Turner's backup singers the Ikettes, they were told, "Dress Code, Make guys excite." Claudia came to be seen as a sex symbol and ended up featured in Playboy magazine.

However, the film's overall focus was on the unsung backup singers, those talented individuals who never made it as lead singers despite their voices being good enough to be used sometimes by lead singers to lip-sync to. Darlene Love sang "Christmas (Baby please come home)", the 1963 Christmas number one single that producer Phil Spector gave to his wife Ronnie Spector. Darlene used to hear her song introduced on the radio as Ronnie's while she cleaned houses.

Watching 20 Feet from Stardom shows the levels of institutionalised sexism and sexualisation of women in the music industry since the 60s despite its lack of mention by name in the film.

It also highlighted how racism and segregation were reflected in the music scene and the importance of collective struggle to overcome these divisions in society.