“You gotta have that narcissism, that ego,” Bruce Springsteen says of what it takes to be a lead singer early in Twenty Feet From Stardom, the excellent new documentary about backup singers from director Morgan Neville that opened on Friday. “It’s a pretty long walk.” Ambition and bravado are important and difficult-to-quantify factors in professional success. And that Twenty Feet From Stardom identifies it, along with record company chicanery, the musical training many backup singers received in African-American churches, and underpayment of black singers as factors in directing some artists into backup roles makes the movie a valuable contribution not just to our understanding of contemporary pop music, but to the debate about ambition and work-life balance sparked by books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In or Arianna Huffington’s Third Metric conference.
Twenty Feet From Stardom makes clear that there are talented backup singers who were, without question, robbed of their shots at solo stardom. Record producer Phil Spector, who had Darlene Love on contract, took her vocal performances on songs like “He’s A Rebel,” and “He’s Sure The Boy I Love” and marketed them as the product of a girl group called The Crystals, who got credit when “He’s A Rebel” hit number one on the pop charts. “It’s pretty debilitating to sit at home and hear the song you sang and someone else lipsynching it,” says Susaye Greene, who was a member of The Supremes in the seventies. Spector’s power meant that he could be vindictive. When Love eventually signed a contract elsewhere, Spector bought it from her new label, and effectively sidelined her career. Love ended up working as a housekeeper, before revitalizing her career in the 1980s.
Another factor the movie identifies as routing women into backup singing is the institution that trained their voices in the first place: African-American church choirs. “You come up learning the part your voice actually sits in,” Love explains in the movie. And Dr. Mable John, who was the first woman signed to Motown by Berry Gordy, and who worked in pop before 1973 before leaving to make Christian music, suggests that “We, in the mustic industry, as African-American people, need to know our worth. As women, we need to know our worth.”
But these tangible factors interact with preferences and individual comfort zones that are much more difficult to quantify. “Singing oohs and ahhas is fun for a minute. I’m not sure I’d like to do it for a living,” Mick Jagger, who dueted with Merry Clayton on “Gimme Shelter,” a part that she came into the studio in the middle of the night to sing. Lisa Fischer, a session musician who’s recorded solo albums, and who has toured with the Rolling Stones since 1989, explains in the movie that “I love melodies. I’m in love with the sound, vibration, and what it does with other people…You try to stay there as long as you can.” But even though Fischer says that she loves disappearing into the texture of a song, it’s clear that she’s frustrated that her solo career hasn’t taken off the way that many observers in Twenty Feet From Stardom suggest it might have. “I always felt like I belonged to everybody,” she explains. “Like a part of me belonged to everyone.”
And in addition to personal ambition, anxiety, and even fear, musicians in particular face the vicissitudes of working in a creative field. Judith Hill, the backup singer who would have been given an international stage on Michael Jackson’s tour supporting This Is It, only to lose the opportunity when he died before the concerts began, is having to blaze a new trail to recognition. “I wanted to sing as Merry Clayton to the masses,” Clayton reflects at one point in the movie on a solo career that never quite came together. “I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.” But at least, unlike Claudia Lennear, who ultimately decided to find satisfaction out of music and now works teaching Spanish, Clayton is still singing.