Chances are you’ve never heard of Merry Clayton before. But you know her voice. Likely from dozens of songs, but especially from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” She was 20 when she was dragged out of bed in the night to deliver a powerhouse backing vocal that would make rock ‘n’ roll history.
In one of the documentary’s most powerful moments, Clayton, now 64, sits in a room in front of some speakers as her isolated vocal track from “Gimme Shelter” begins playing. A smile creeps over Clayton’s face; she beams with pride.
That’s the plight of the backup singer: everyone knows her voice, few know her name. “20 Feet From Stardom” aims to shine a spotlight on the women who’ve spent their careers just outside its reach. Documentarian Morgan Neville uses a mix of interviews and archival footage to let the singers, and their music, tell their stories of vocal triumph and thwarted ambition.
There are no easy answers as to why these women didn’t make it big, and the film never offers any. Some never found the right songwriters, or else couldn’t find a market for their sound or image. Others, like modern-day singer Lisa Fischer, don’t seem to be wired for superstardom.
But while there’s heartbreak, the film doesn’t function as a pitying paean to unmined talent — it’s a celebration of the unsung.
— Barbara VanDenburgh, The Arizona Republic