Washington Area Women's Foundation

New Documentary Takes on Women’s Work & Worth


Twenty Feet from Stardom, the documentary currently playing in DC-area theaters about backup singers, is on its surface a stereotypical Hollywood tale: ingénue steps into the recording studio seeking fame and fortune, but comes up short – in this case, an achingly close 20 feet short.

It is also, of course, about so much more. It’s about the people – overwhelmingly women of color – whose names you don’t know but who are responsible for the best parts of your favorite songs – the voices with whom you have sung along for years. It’s also about the chances artists – and particularly women artists – take when their career trajectories lie in the hands of the Ike Turners and Phil Spectors of the world (even if you haven’t seen the film, you can imagine how that might turn out). Finally, 20 Feet from Stardom is an exploration of the dreams we have for our lives and what happens when they come up short – at least in the eyes of others.

A number of people interviewed for the film, for example, assumed that Lisa Fischer (who has sung backup for the Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross and Sting, among others) wants and should have an incredible solo career. At a time when we’re so focused on celebrity, on leaning in and on having it all, this seems to be a logical assumption. But if you ask Lisa, she’d likely say that she already has it all. And she’d probably have some interesting things to say about what “having it all” means. In the film, Lisa makes it clear that she has everything she wants – and when she went for some prize that everyone else thought she should have, she discovered that it made her miserable.

Darlene Love had her a-ha moment decades after singing back-up for artists that included Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke and Elvis. After a career that was tightly controlled and limited by Phil Spector, Darlene left the industry and took on work cleaning houses for $100 a week. One day, while cleaning someone else’s bathroom, one of her old songs came on the radio and she stopped and asked herself what she was meant to do. Her answer: “God gave me this talent and I intend to use it.” She asked a couple of friends for a loan and returned to music – only this time she had her own strategy and controlled her own image. After taking any gig she could find, she worked her way up to Broadway and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Most of us cannot imagine what it’s like to be a backup singer, but the experiences and emotions portrayed in 20 Feet from Stardom are universal. I think that many of us can share the feelings of being unrecognized, of not having enough control, or not living up to expectations – whether they’re our own or others’. And that’s when it’s time to listen to the advice given by Dr. Mable John (a former Raelette who sang backup for Ray Charles): “…we need to know our worth; we need to know, as women, we’re important. I think the breakdown is when a woman doesn’t know what she is and she settles for less.”

It’s a lesson that works just as well off stage as on. The fascinating, devastating stories featured in 20 Feet from Stardom are unique because of their glamorous setting, but the lessons associated with them are not uncommon. The women in the film seemed to be happiest and most satisfied when they had control over their own lives, when they were getting recognition for their accomplishments and when they were fairly compensated. These are, of course, “no duh” statements – a fact that makes it seem even more criminal that they were denied these things to begin with, and a reminder that it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we value ourselves and one another fairly.

Photo from NYTimes.com.