“20 Feet From Stardom” - No. 1 Pick!!
The Voice Behind Mick (and Others)
Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Ms. Fischer in “20 Feet From Stardom,” directed by Morgan Neville.
If a background singer had not contributed her ferocious “rape, murder — it’s just a shot away” to “Gimme Shelter,” would it have even become a hit?
“When you start listening for us, honey, we’re everywhere,” said Lisa Fischer, a vocalist who, at 54, is the music industry’s reigning backup queen. “Ev-ery-where!” she warbled jubilantly before detonating a smile and breaking into the giggles.
Ms. Fischer, who lives in New York when she is not on the road, was grabbing a bite at the Four Seasons here after a performance with the Rolling Stones. She has been singing with the band since 1989, and her “Gimme Shelter” duets with Mick Jagger are now a highlight for many fans. Her other gigs have been just as impressive. In concerts or recording studios, she has backed up Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, Sting, Dolly Parton, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin, just to name a few.
But Ms. Fischer, alluringly plump with short black hair and a nose piercing, does not fit the background-singer stereotype. If you’re singing backup, you’re supposed to hunger nonstop for one thing: the move center stage. Performing lead is the prized position. A backup singer? Just another belter in a black dress.
Ms. Fischer had a hit of her own. She won a Grammy in 1992 for her first single, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” beating out none other than Ms. Franklin. But she never completed a second record, in large part because she decided that the heat of the spotlight wasn’t for her. Backup singing was her calling.
“I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more,” Ms. Fischer explained, speaking with her eyes closed, as she tends to do. “I love supporting other artists.”
She continued: “I guess it came down to not letting other people decide what was right for me. Everyone’s needs are unique. My happy is different from your happy.”
The upshot: Ms. Fischer has paradoxically emerged as a star partly because of her decision not to seek stardom.
Movie audiences will get the chance to meet the earthy, emotive Ms. Fischer on Friday, when “20 Feet From Stardom“ arrives in theaters. The documentary, directed by Morgan Neville (“Johnny Cash’s America”), delves deep into this often-ignored corner of the music business — the history, the histrionics, the heartache.
Especially the heartache. Mr. Neville lingers on people like Darlene Love, who was a brick in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound — that’s her, for example, singing backup on “Da Doo Ron Ron” — but got chewed up by an abusive music industry; she ended up cleaning houses before restarting her career in the 1980s. The film also highlights Merry Clayton, who provided that searing “Gimme Shelter” performance in 1969, but never managed to achieve the solo superstardom she wanted so badly.
On the younger end of the spectrum, “20 Feet From Stardom” showcases Judith Hill, a statuesque 29-year-old singer who is scraping and clawing for that solo break. (She was voted off the NBC singing competition “The Voice” on May 28, prompting a judge, Adam Levine, to controversially mutter, “I hate this country.”)
But in many ways Ms. Fischer has become the unexpected star of Mr. Neville’s film, at least as it has traveled the festival circuit, including a stop at Sundance, where it was nominated for a grand jury prize. If some other background singers don’t exactly see themselves in her story — seriously, no solo aspirations? — a lot of everyday people in the audience do. Every office has a self-promoting showboat or two, but the load is carried by the unheralded cubicle dwellers who quietly do their work and do it well.
“About a month ago,” Mr. Neville said, “a guy stood up after a screening and said: ‘I’m a middle manager at a company, and I’m O.K. with that. We make a good product, and I’m proud of what I do. I just realized that I’m a backup singer.’ That was him connecting with Lisa.”
Mr. Neville added, “To me, Lisa is the soul of the movie.”
That kind of talk makes Ms. Fischer squirm. She instead shifted the conversation toward some of the grande dames of background singing, in particular Ms. Clayton, 64. “I owe so much to women like her,” she said.
The admiration is mutual. “I’d never met Lisa before, but people thought it was going to be tense because she’s now singing ‘Gimme Shelter’ on the road,” Ms. Clayton said by telephone. “She came up to me, and kissed me dead on the mouth. And we hugged for about five minutes.”