They step onto the stage behind the brightest lights in many of the world’s grandest venues. And often possess voices that would raise goose bumps. Surprisingly, it’s not the mega star but the voice of backup singer: the unknown but most talented voice in the room.
Award winning, veteran, documentary Director Morgan Neville talks to lingk2us.com about his latest project, “20 Feet from Stardom,” which shines a spotlight on the untold true stories of these mega-talented individuals. The film exposes the paths, triumphs and trials of the talented vocalists performing “at the back of the stage” for some of the music industry’s all-time greats (Sting, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross).
How did you become involved with the project?
Actually my producer Gil Friesen had the idea to make a film about backup singers. Initially he just thought there was something interesting about them…but wasn’t sure if there was a film there. As we started to research the topic we couldn’t find anything about it. For something so present in our culture, amazingly it was virtually invisible and uncharted territory. It was difficult to figure out what the film would look like, because there were no books or other films about it… so we decided to do oral histories by inter-viewing 50 backup singers to kind of figure out what their whole world was about.
The first day we interviewed Darlene Love and I turned to Gil and said “we can always make a Darlene Love documentary,” she was so compelling and her story was so filled with many dramatic ups and downs. But as we met with more backup singers, we were totally blown away over and over again. It didn’t take us long to realize that there was a really great story here. There was so much fascinating material, that it was hard to decide on what elements to cut. We had to remind ourselves we were making a film, not writing
a book which required streamlining it more and more for it to fit together as a film. We could have talked about Nashville singers or even male singers but whenever I considered singers from other worlds their experiences were just too different from the women. I really had to focus on this group of singers because their stories all echo each other’s stories – though they made different decisions in their careers.
While making the film, what were you most surprised to learn about them?
That they’re amazing. I had a bunch of misconceptions. People often think people are backup singers because they’re not great, which is so not true. If there’s one big take away from the film, it’s not about talent. For the most part, backup singers are more talented than lead singers. Their voices have a lot of character. It’s not like they’re just technically great but have no personality to their voice. They have a lot of personality. And once you
take that out of the equation, the film becomes about the reasons why people make it or they don’t. I think being 20 feet from stardom gives singers a vantage point on all of the pitfalls of being a lead singer. And there were a lot of backup singers that I talked to who had no ambition to be a lead singer. If your ambition is just to sing, then trying to be a pop
star means you’re going to spend 90 percent of your time doing anything but singing. If you just want to sing every day, being a professional singer can be a good life. It’s not the easiest life but it can be a good life if you’re really good.
In the documentary you profile backup singers from the 60s and even include the story of Judith Hill, backup singer to Michael Jackson and recent contestant on Season 3 of “The Voice”, who sang at Jackson’s memorial. Based on your experience with the film, do you believe it’s easier or harder today for backup singers compared to four or five decades ago? And If so, why?
I actually don’t think it’s changed that much. I think a lot of the challenges are the same, but the music industry has changed and it has become more difficult to become a singer these days. There are many from the background world who have made it to the fore- ground whether it’s a Dionne Warwick, Luther Vandross, or a Chaka Khan, or a Sheryl Crow. But now we’re in a culture where the best way to become a star is to have an Internet fluke or something. That’s kind of what Sting talks about in the film, which is a lot of this reality show success…which may be very intense but as he says “it’s wafer thin.” It’s not based on the practice and depth of artistry that a lot of great singers had.
In your estimation, are there certain star qualities that lead singers posses in greater quantity than the backup singer?
I asked a number of backup singers how they felt about singing behind someone who is obviously not as good as they are. Darlene Love told me “I have no problem with that.” Their job is not to stew about the fact that they’re in the back of the stage and someone else is in the front of the stage. Their job is to be supportive and make somebody else look good. That’s the gig and they respect that.
Darlene Love said “Look I would tour behind Sonny (from Sonny and Cher).” And she would give him endless grief about the fact that he couldn’t sing. But even though he wasn’t a great singer, he had an amazing likeability factor. He had the ability to get people to like him and that in itself is a skill too. I feel like it’s not just about vocals and vocal ability, these other things are major assets and pivotal to success . Maybe the best artists
have all of the above. But I would say in general, backup singers are not as ambitious, probably because they’ve always been the best singers around. So they’ve never had
to be ambitious.