Greetings again from the darkness. “And the colored girls go do doo doo, do doo …”. The controversial lyrics from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” kick off this exceptional documentary about the oft-ignored back-up singers who have played (and continue to play) a huge role in some of the biggest songs of all-time. You may not know their names, but you have undoubtedly sung along with them while driving or taking a shower.
Director Morgan Neville has a credit list filled with music shorts and documentaries. One of my personal favorites of his is “The American Masters” on Muddy Waters. I recalled that while watching this one because Neville does a nice job of connecting the dots from Gospel, Blues and Soul to the roots of Rock and Roll. The main women featured here all admit to being daughters of preachers, and fine-tuning their ability to harmonize during their youth while singing in the church choir.
Most of the interview time and insight comes from Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton. You may not recognize the names or faces, but you will surely recognize the voices. Ms. Love has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and may be best known thanks to her annual appearance on the David Letterman Show at Christmas. Ms. Fischer is the most frequent worker today of the three as she tours with Chris Botti, Sting and The Rolling Stones. However, the heart-stopping climax of the film belongs to Merry Clayton, as we are treated to her isolated vocals from the master on her infamous performance on the single “Gimme Shelter“. Hearing her raw voice blast out “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away” is both exhilarating and gut-wrenching. To hear her tell the story is mesmerizing. One of my favorite movie moments ever.
While we see and hear the personal stories filled with frustration and regrets, we also see an inherent love of music and the appreciation for their particular gift. We also hear from Tata Vega, Dr. Mabel John (a former Raelette for Ray Charles), and Claudia Lennear. With many similar stories of their quest for solo careers, we get the contemporary version with Judith Hill, a twenty-something working back-up today as she strives for a solo career. The parallels are obvious with her older peers.
Another excellent feature of the film comes in the form of interviews from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Lou Adler, Chris Botti, and Mick Jagger. We also see some studio shots featuring Phil Spector (once the hottest music producer, now incarcerated), and concert footage of Talking Heads, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, and the Concert for Bangladesh. It’s especially fitting to see Luther Vandross as a back-up singer to David Bowie‘s “Young Americans“, and to hear from Sheryl Crow, who worked as Michael Jackson’s back-up/lead female. These are the examples of the back-ups who successfully made the walk.
My only minor quibble with the film is structural, not content. Neville has an over-whelming task of addressing each of the individual stories, while also relating it to the nasty and unfair music business, the Civil Rights movement, the development of Rock and Roll, and the role that “talent” plays in what Springsteen terms the “complicated” walk from back-up to lead singer (the titular 20 feet). The segment focusing on Merry Clayton’s role in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” is especially poignant. Overall this film is fascinating and entertaining, and makes a great companion piece to Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) and Muscle Shoals (2013). Whether or not you are a fan of documentaries, this is a film to be enjoyed by all.
watch the trailer: