20 Feet From Stardom   

by director Morgan Neville

When I make a film, I like to start by making a mix tape. (I’m dating myself here. I grew up in the days when making mix tapes for girlfriends was a generational equivalent of writing a mash note).

Okay, so it’s actually an iTunes playlist. I like to string out the songs and arrange them so that the songs themselves tell a story. I want the musical foundation to be solid. The songs are not the filler—they are the story.

In the beginning, the problem with this film was coming up with a list of great backup singing songs. If I asked you to name five songs with great backing vocals off the top of your head, you might be able to do it, but it’s hard (“Respect”? “Hit the Road Jack”?). Our brains aren’t wired to even notice the backing vocals, but as Janice Pendarvice says in our film, they are singing “The Hooks.”

I found myself listening to a lot of radio and suddenly, there they were. (“Young Americans...” Of course! “Hey Nineteen,” Right! “Rolling in the Deep,” Yep!).

I soon realized that I had to develop a taxonomy of backing vocals. What did I consider backing vocals to be? I was confronted by endless possibilities: Girl groups? Reggae singers? Country? Disco?

I found myself gravitating towards those singers who were voices for hire—people who had to walk into any session and sing anything perfectly from the first take with no safety net.

I decided that songs with great backup vocals sung by somebody within a group didn’t count. So, by my own strict rules, that meant that a song like “The Best of My Love” by the Emotions was out, but a song like “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge was in, because the backing vocals on that were sung by hired singers like David Lasley and Luther Vandross, not Sister Sledge themselves.

I also learned that many of the backup singers I met also sang on many songs without credit. Not to take anything away from great vocal bands like The Beach Boys or The Bee Gees, but “In My Room” and “Staying Alive” were sweetened with session singers. I even met a singer who told me he’d sung the choruses on The Ramones’ “Rocket to Russia.” Who knew?

Now, two and a half years later, I've found that I listen to music differently. I still hear new voices in old favorites.

And, in making this film, I’ve been lucky enough to get to know the people who have those voices—amazing, humble, soulful people. They’ve been making others sound great for decades, now it’s their turn to shine.

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