Illuminating lives in the background

Backup singer and aspiring solo artist Judith Hill was rehearsing a duet with Michael Jackson in preparation for the pop superstar's comeback tour. Soon after, she was hearing the news that Jackson was dead after receiving doses of powerful drugs meant to help him sleep.

"All of a sudden, we're on our way to rehearsal and we get the news," said Hill, recalling Jackson's 2009 death. "And it's like, you've got to be kidding me. Like, how's that even possible?" She added that it was "an overwhelming shock just to go from almost on our way to this huge show to all of a sudden he's gone."

The documentary "20 Feet From Stardom" explores such ups and downs in the lives of backup singers, the virtually anonymous artists who stand so close to famous stars.

Two special screenings of the documentary, at 5:30 and 8 p.m. today, will show at the Varsity Theatre in downtown Ashland to benefit the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

According to the film festival, the documentary is triumphant and heartbreaking in equal measure, "both a tribute to the unsung voices who brought shape and style to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others."

While the film includes interviews with superstars such as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting, it focuses on the backup singers whose names go largely unrecognized.

Hill is one of the few backup singers who may be recognizable to audiences.

This year, she wowed judges on the television show "The Voice," but was eventually eliminated despite her strong vocals and stage presence.

In "20 Feet From Stardom," Hill said being a backup singer can have its pitfalls.

"When you're a backup singer, it is a springboard. But it can easily become a quicksand if that's not what you want to do," she said.

The documentary features a new generation of backup singers, including Hill, along with veterans of the craft, such as Darlene Love, who worked with Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Sonny and Cher, and others in the 1950s and 1960s. Her performances into the 2000s included singing with Bruce Springsteen.

"My life has been all about trying to make a success of the gift that I have," Love said in "20 Feet From Stardom."

Claudia Lennear, who performed with Mick Jagger and others, had vocal skills and dance moves that could rival Beyoncé today. However, Lennear remained in the background for most of her singing career, later becoming a teacher.

In the film, she and other longtime singers discuss their discouragement after giving their hearts to their craft, while others disclose that they were reduced to menial jobs such as cleaning houses.

Both veterans and younger singers join together in a powerful, moving performance of "Lean on Me," which is one of the highlights of the film.

Their version will leave audiences wondering what twists of fate allow some singers to break out as world-famous stars, while others — seemingly equally talented — remain forever in the background.

For more information about "20 Feet From Stardom" and to view a film trailer and video clips, see

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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