“Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away.” Merry Clayton’s vocal projection pierce through at Gimme Shelter’s most unsettling moment. Jagger presses on with playing the sex-crazed Pierrot as Clayton literally screams through a microphone. The story of Clayton’s involvement has been allegorised frequently. Waking to a call in the middle of the night, hair in curlers, Clayton is requested at the Los Angeles recording studio where the Stones were finalising Let It Bleed. She delivered the most stirring vocals in only two takes. It was another successful turning point for the Rolling Stones and another notch to Clayton’s exemplary reputation. Yet, as the Stones rolled, Clayton returned to the shadows.
Stories such as Clayton’s have been capsuled perfectly in Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). It gives names to the unsung singers who rarely see the fruits of their talents publicly lauded. They’re the backing singers who, almost criminally have been refused their opportunity to lead. Neville provides to unknown virtuosos such as Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Darlene Love, Tâta Vega and, of course, Clayton, the opportunity to play celebrity. It’s stirringly original, sometimes infuriating, other times rapturously gratifying. Allowing the singer’s the opportunity recall their experiences within the record industry, Neville seemingly freezes out any sentimental partisanship. Instead, archival pictures and extended scenes of vocalists trilling and warbling take up the better part of the film.
Brief, semi-spiritual asides from egoistic house names including Sting, Stevie Wonder and the perceptively sagacious Bruce Springsteen are filtered in to add excuses for their backing singer’s failures to shine. All predominately stick to the conceited aphorism of “you either have it or you don’t”. But it’s The Boss that gifts the most telling of phrases, “It’s a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is…complicated.” While the vast majority of singers Neville tends to are African-American women, talks of industry prejudices are minimal if only alluded to. Much like Clayton’s stabs at ‘going solo’, political discussion is cold shouldered. At times, the arrogance of his ill-acclaimed subjects becomes embittered and overbearing. He presumably had no option but to let them break free without any intervention.
This could have been where 20 Feet from Stardom croaks. Neville hammocks too comfortably on the simplicity of his concept. Filmic chronology is ignored. Unlike its near-faultless contender for Oscar gold, The Act of Killing (2013), it lacks any provocative backbone. And yet, where it is deficient it more than compensates for in honesty, integrity and nobility. Stars able to shed from the shackles of the ‘support’ slot, such as Luther Vandross only get a trace of airtime. Familiar famed faces appear to purport the artiste’s expert opinion, but only in passing. It’s the unknowns, both old and young, that take centre-stage. Maybe that’s reason enough for such an illustrious award – it gives a voice to those that sing until their throats rasp. We just never heard it until now.