4 stars
There was a period in the ‘60s when all girl singing groups were extremely popular kept under the thumb of their producers. Many of these women were back-up singers like Darlene Love, who was discovered and yet held back by the ‘wall of sound’ producer, Phil Spector. Her career was spent ‘ghosting’ for other singers, most notably The Crystals who, it turns out, were lip-synching when they appeared on TV. In this fabulous documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville (whose company produced the recent Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane) brings a number of these ladies into the spotlight, for they were known not to push themselves forward.

There are interviews with a select number of singers like Darlene Love, who ultimately became a housekeeper to make ends meet; the preacher’s daughter Merry Clayton, known for her stunning back-up on the Stones’ Gimme Shelter ; the Puerto Rican singer Tata Vega, who currently tours with Elton John; and Judith Hill the young singer who was all set to tour with the late Michael Jackson, but ended up singing at his funeral. Their stories are at times heart-breaking, but mostly thrilling as they belt out a few notes and instead of wallowing in ‘poor-me’ personas, they all still exude that certain something, the X-Factor!

Their stories are intercut with lengthy interviews with mega stars such as Bruce Springsteen, who throws a very clear light on the reasons why the girls were held back. There are also wonderfully candid moments with Mick Jagger, Lou Adler, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler, et al. Neville also uses some archival footage, one of the best being of David Bowie in a recording studio when he first came to the USA to work on his Young Americans album, arguably one of the highlights of his career.

This is a timely piece for it sets out to highlight the importance of the back-up singers. They came from a time when some of the best music was created and some of it still lives on today. All these women exude grace and a dispassionate attitude to their careers and bear no regrets. Overall the film is a tribute to these performers who remained mostly in the background, although if you are familiar with Merry Clayton’s solo albums, you’ll know that many could have been stars in their own right. Unfortunately Clayton’s shot at fame never reached the heights of the artists she backed up. Such is life. Anyone who is interested in soul music and revelled in Motown will adore this film. It is simply fabulous… Go Girls!


Previewed at Verona Cinema, Sydney on November 18, 2013


Darlene Love
Merry Clayton
Lisa Fischer

Morgan Neville



90 minutes

November 21
20 Feet from Stardom (2013) on IMDb
Stacks Image 56