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Documentaries offer peek at the backing musicians behind the big acts

"Muscle Shoals"
Magnolia Home Entertainment

"Twenty Feet From Stardom"
Anchor Bay

By Gillian G. Gaar

"Muscle Shoals"tells the story of how one small Alabama town became a hotbed of musical innovation in blues, soul and rock. It all began when Rick Hall founded FAME Studios, then expanded when the studio house band, dubbed “the Swampers,” split off to set up their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound.

An extraordinary array of talent recorded at both of these studios, and Muscle Shoals’ director Greg “Freddy” Camalier has assembled an impressive list of interviewees. Most important, of course, are interviews with Hall and the Swampers (guitar/producer Jimmy Johnson), bassist David Hood, and drummer Roger Hawkins). But you also hear from plenty of artists who recorded at one of those two studios: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, and Alicia Keys, among others. There’s great archive footage too (though more captions identifying who’s who would’ve been welcome).


But Camalier doesn’t just stick to the studio. More than one interviewee rhapsodizes about the “Singing River,” the Tennessee, that some believe gives the region its musical power. Race relations are also a big part of the story, especially during FAME’s rise in the 1960s. Black artists like Percy Sledge were surprised to arrive at the studio and learn that the funky sound on records coming out of Muscle Shoals was being created by a bunch of white guys. It was integration at its best; working together on the basis of skill and talent, rather than race.


While "Muscle Shoals" looks at a music scene that’s world famous, "Twenty Feet From Stardom" looks at more unheralded talents: the backup singers who perform alongside the top stars on stage and in the studio. The Oscar-winningn film starts with Darlene Love, who sang on classic records produced by Phil Spector like “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” but found herself reduced to cleaning houses when the work dried up.

Darlene Love Twenty Feet From Stardom

Darlene Love is among the featured artists in the documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom." Image courtesy Radius-TWC.

(RELATED STORY: Unsung musical heroine Darlene Love joins Rock Hall elite)

Love’s story is one of the film’s running themes; success as a backup singer may not translate to success as a solo artist. The film’s other interviewees — Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, and Lisa Fischer among them — all had a hard time launching solo careers. "Twenty Feet" also explores the disappointment of wanting to take center stage only to find that your skills might be best suited to staying in the supporting cast instead. Some ended up leaving the business entirely; Lennear, who danced and sang in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, as well as touring with Joe Cocker and performing at George Harrison’s Concerts for Bangla Desh, has since become a Spanish teacher.

There’s lots of fun stuff too of course; Clayton is a diva to be reckoned with (she teasingly chides the filmmakers for asking her to turn down the radio in her car) and relates the recording session where she laid down the great “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” riff in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” with great relish. And there’s no shortage of stars to sing the praises of their backing vocals: Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bruce Springsteen all put in appearances.

20 Feet From Stardom

And there’s plenty of live footage, guaranteed to get music fans tapping their feet; indeed, in the footage of Springsteen backing up Love on “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” the Boss has never looked happier. The footage also helps to illustrate which singer performed on which song; there’s an impressive span music history documented in Twenty Feet.

Some interviewees’ stories have a happy ending. Love’s career rebounded after a slump, and she was eventually inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. If the other singers haven’t reached that level of acclaim — yet — director Morgan Neville (who’s also directed documentaries on Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and Stax Records) has ensured that these ladies (and it’s mostly female backing singers that are interviewed), will never be relegated to the shadows again.