20 Feet from Stardom

Rating: Former Governor Daniels may not consider this film to be an accurate reflection of rock and roll history, but at least we can be thankful that he is not associated with higher education.

20 Feet from Stardom20 Feet From Stardom is an irresistible historical film that will charm you to death. A documentary of Oscar caliber, it weaves a spectacular story concerning a handful of African-American backup singers who were instrumental to the success of such legendary greats as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Sting and on and on and on.

The strength of the film comes directly from the fact that the girls from yesterday are allowed to tell their own tremendous story today. They were and are loaded with talented, and there was a time when they simply wanted to find a way to remove the term “backup” from their resumes. But as Bruce Springsteen describes in a handful of meaningful interviews, that 20-foot walk to the front of the stage is both a difficult and a treacherous path.

In describing their collective adventures, it all begins in how they broke through music’s segregated barrier at the time Ed Sulllivan and Perry Como were appearing on television. The backup singers were always white, but things changed forever when rock and roll devoured the music scene.

As Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear and Judith Hill tell their own stories, you see archival footage that demonstrates how the music world exploded. Since the late 1980’s, Ms. Fischer has become an instrumental member of the Rolling Stones whenever they launch a tour. Ms. Clayton is seen singing with Ray Charles as he defines himself, while Ms. Lennear appears with Tina Turner as a member of the Ikettes under the glaring eye of Ike Turner.

All of this is colossally enjoyable, particularly when you get to view what they were going through at the time. They remember with fondness Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side”, where mention was made of “the colored girls”.

There is another moment where Ms. Clayton remembers recording a song for Phil Spector in Detroit under what she thought was her own name, only to subsequently see a recognized musical group of black females lip synching her song as if it was theirs. They didn’t forget these moments, and you won’t either.

It should also be mentioned how Judith Hill danced on the edge of complete stardom as she prepared to tour with Michael Jackson, only to be told of his death. She discovered that no matter how hard she and others tried, the “colored girls” are destined to define themselves as extraordinarily gifted backup singers.

In a sense, the life stories of these women transcended the music industry. Yes, they had to come to grips with the fact that while they were never going to reach that pedestal where they become household names and national stars. Yet they loved to sing, dance and harmonize, and that was good enough for them. After all, they were able to do what they loved.

Ironically, it reminded me a bit of practicing law. For many of us, we at times privately contemplate what would happen if we reached the point where we publicly dominated our profession. What if we became the great white legal shark where everybody else had to wait in line until we were finished.

Yet the reality is that no matter what our talents may be, most of us are the professional equivalent of backup singers. But if we love our profession, enjoy our friends and have the opportunity to occasionally help out a desperate client, then that’s good enough.