Soundtracking is a regular column that appears on looking at the music featured in the biggest new releases both in theatre and on home video. The docuentary 20 Feet from Stardom takes a look at the forgotten faces of some of music’s most unforgettable voices.

Originally published on – January 13, 2014.

Just out of the spotlight but crucial to the crafting of many of the greatest songs of the past hundred years are scores of talented but often overlooked back-up singers.

Morgan Neville’s look at the imbalance between talent and star-power in the world of back-up singing takes centre stage as 20 Feet from Stardom gets its home video release Tuesday.

It’s easy to forget just how many indelible moments in the history of pop music are thanks to the talents of largely unknown back-up singers. This comes immediately to mind as the film’s opening credits roll over Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. The 1972 hit gets praised for lots of elements: Reed’s mean streets lyrics,David Bowie and Mick Ronson’s production at the height of glam rock, but often overlooked are the unforgettable back-up vocals provided by the Thunderthighs.

The song segues nicely into a profile on the voices that have helped shape the history of rock n’ roll whose names are largely unknown to many of the listeners who have grown up with their performances.

Darlene Love, Tata Vega and Merry Clayton share stories about the life of a back-up singer, their struggles with getting proper credit and existing semi-anonymously in the background of some of music history’s greatest moments.

While Darlene Love has enjoyed a seasonal renaissance with her 1963 classic “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” her attempts to go solo – including taking uncredited lead vocals on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” – never took off. Ditto Clayton, whose heart-stopping turn behind Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” never paved the way for her own rise to the top.

However, not everyone in the film toiled forever in the shadows. There have been success stories from the background to the spotlight, including Sheryl Crow and Luther Vandross, whose incalculable contributions to David Bowie’s “Young Americans” are also chronicled in the film.

But it’s the names that are unfamiliar that leap off the screen in 20 Feet from Stardom as they present not only the kind of talent that made them go-to options for the likes of George Harrison, Talking Heads andMichael Jackson but a sense of understanding. Stardom may have largely eluded these singers, but their voices never went unheard.

Hearing their stories is what made 20 Feet from Stardom one of 2013’s best documentaries.

As a parting gift, here’s one of my favourite uses of background vocals from the last few years: “Lost in the Light” by Canada’s own Bahamas (AKA Afie Jurvanen). The song features backing vocals from Carleigh Aikins and Felicity Williams, although –interestingly – five back-up vocalists are pictured in the video.