I’ve tended to have a fairly negative opinion of backing singers. Not based on their talent so much as the fact that their most conspicuous presence has tended to be when they appear on stage as obvious hired guns, in match outfits are choreographed dancing, supporting some band who have reached middle age and suddenly decided that this is the sort of thing they need. Much like the sudden live addition of a sax player, nothing seemed to represent an act becoming old, soft and plodding like the sudden inclusion of a trio of women much younger than the main attraction and who you know don’t enjoy the music as much as their fixed smiles might suggest.
But while this is definitely a thing, it’s also an unfair dismissal. There are plenty of records that have been improved, often made great by the addition of backing singers, and these tend to get overlooked. So this documentary does what any good documentary should – it encourages you to see things in a new light, expands your knowledge of a subject and tells you things you don’t already know. More to the point, it reminds you of things you DO already know but perhaps never really thought too much about.
The film is primarily the story of the black American vocalists – the ‘coloured girls’ of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, which opens the movie – who first emerged in the early 1960s, singing on Phil Spector records and at Ray Charles gigs. These were the singers who brought a new sense of soul and freedom to a world that had previously been dominated by the like of The Andrews Sisters, the white singers who the film rather too routinely dismisses (if there is a fault with this movie, it’s that anyone who doesn’t quite fit with its chosen narrative is either ignored or marginalised, and to compare singers of the crooning era to post-rock ‘n’ roll performers seems a bit unfair). So we meet Darlene Love – who had her career essentially crushed by the crazed Spector, who would release her recordings credited to other artists yet stil managed to record the best Christmas record ever – Merry Clayton, Tat Vega, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear and other living legends of the time who sang on everything from Sixties girl group records, Frank Sinatra disc and The Monster Mash to the Stones’ Gimme Shelter, Bowie’s Young Americans and even Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama (the story behind this is intriguing, given the racial politics of the era and the nature of the song).
Along the way, we get talking head interviews with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder, along with a few chances to hear isolated vocal tracks (Merry Clayton’s performance on Gimme Shelter, belting out “Rape, Murder, It’s just a shot away”is startlingly impressive). There’s discussion on the use of backing singers as eye-candy (Lennear and her fellow Ikettes from the Ike and Tina Turner days being the victim of some catty references or some snarky editing) and the problems in stepping up to the front of the stage – few of these women had any success as solo artists, and the ones who did – notably Lisa Fischer – seemed uncomfortable with it. As more that one commenter says, not everyone is cut out to take that step forward – some are happier out of the spotlight and allowing the music, not the fame to be the main thing. How this will work out for the youngest profiled performer, Judith Hill, remains to be seen.
The documentary tells its story in a somewhat scattershot manner – there’s no linear story here, and things are frequently held up for reunions and modern recording sessions that are fine in and of themselves (if sometimes a little too sentimental) but rather slow the narrative. It’s likely that there are too many performers in this story, and that none of them have had dramatic enough falls and rises to make a film that flows as a story, and it’s not a big issue, but the resulting film is perhaps closer to a BBC4 documentary than anything else. That this won the Oscar for Best Documentary is more a result of an academy playing it safe than it is the quality of the film. It’s a good movie, certainly; but not an exceptional one.
However, anyone who loves good music will find much to enjoy here. There are fascinating stories and great archive footage (though I suspect the BBFC content warning should include ‘contains footage of a cadaverous Michael Jackson in rehearsal just prior to death’) and all the women featured here are feisty, lively, often eccentric and on top form. They deserve all the credit they get here, and will leave you with a new-found appreciation for what they’ve done over the decades (and do I need to say that they all still sound incredible?). Like the recent Muscle Shoals, this is an overdue look at a part of rock music history that has never really had the attention it deserves.