The complexities surrounding the concept of fame -- motivations, attainment or lack of it, consequences of either outcome -- is a topic that forever fascinates me. As someone who is peripherally attached to the music business via photography, I've been able to observe the careers of many musical artists over time, followed their triumphs and frustrations, and have often been able to see something of their off-stage lives -- how things are when the stage lights are dimmed, and when there are no adoring fans around and regular life kicks back in. What makes one artist a "success" while another equally-talented one struggles? What is "success," anyway? Money? Adoration? Sales? A door opened to opportunities? Love? Security? Attention? The chance for the world to know what you do best? All of this? I have tumbled these questions around in my mind for most of my life, but am only now beginning to develop answers that feel comprehensive and resonant.

"Twenty Feet From Stardom," an extraordinary, exhilarating documentary from director Morgan Neville, profiles a select group of musicians who have unique insight into every possible permutation of fame. They are the great unknowns of the pop music: the backup singers. If you think that the job of the backup singer is a simple one, merely showing up to do a few la-la-la's and doo-doo-doo's, and that they are likely behind the star because of some kind of a lack...oh my, will you find this movie enlightening! The story told in "Twenty Feet From Stardom" is so much more than an education in what goes into making a timeless recording or a remarkable stage show via the collaboration of star, producer, and supporting musicians -- it is very often parallels mid-century American history itself, and the struggles of race, class, and gender in the midst of rapid cultural change. We are introduced to the best of the best of the backup singers, a lovely variety of vocalists, and most often black American females coming from a lifetime spent singing in a gospel church. The church provided an invaluable training ground that proved perfect for the backup singer, with its call-and-response hymn traditions, the need to blend in harmonically with others, and the opportunity to shine in an unrestrained, joyous solo as well.

The film spends the most time with singers Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, and Merry Clayton. If you don't recognize their names, within the first few minutes of the film you will definitely recognize all of the hits they sang on: "He's A Rebel," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Feelin' Alright," ""How Can I Ease The Pain," "Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)" are just a few. I will go so far as to suggest that Merry Clayton's stunning vocal solo on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is maybe, just maybe, the finest moment on a rock n' roll recording, ever. Clayton and Mick Jagger reliving the moment as the track replays decades later in the studio where it was created is a wonderful highlight in the film.

Listening to Lisa Fischer sing might cause one to believe in the existence of angels. Seeing Claudia Lennear segway from shaking her stuff with the Ike and Tina Turner Review, singing at The Concert for Bangladesh, and inspiring songs written by The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, to teaching high school Spanish for a living is poignant. Feeling the strength and enduring spirit of each vocalist, even through some demoralizing turns of fate, is inspiring, with each one coming to a very different conclusion about what fame and success meant to them.

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" Official Trailer

The capacity audience at Seattle's Egyptian Theater responded warmly to the film, clapping, laughing, cheering the successes and redemptions on the screen. What happened after the film finished was breathtaking.

As part of the Seattle International Film Festival's Centerpiece Gala showcasing of "Twenty Feet From Stardom," director Morgan Neville, and vocalists Tata Vega and Merry Clayton took the stage to answer a few questions from the audience. As they walked up, the audience rose to give a standing ovation of several minutes long, visibly touching the hearts of the three. Neville was gracious and generous in his thanks and praise, filled with good humor. A question directed to Vega turned serious and shocking as she shakily recounted a litany of horrors that had befallen her and how grateful she was to be able to tell her story in the film. Clayton, a true diva with a sly grin and larger-than-life presence, reminded the audience that the film was, yes, about the hard times, but its most important value was in remembering that it is a great privilege to have a gift, and to be able to share that with the world...fame or no fame.

At that point, a man in the shadows of the theater yelled out, "Sing!" The crowd laughed and clapped, wondering what would happen. Clayton didn't hesitate more than a fraction of a second before stepping up and belting out a gospel hymn, powerful and perfect, reaching to the very back of the large theater, and then Vega joined in, passionate and just as perfect, bringing us all back to where it began, revival-style. To be able to experience this -- those gifts -- was overwhelming for me, and tears rolled down my face as I stood and cheered them on, not wanting the moment to end. I will never forget it.

Wherever each vocalist landed on the ladder of fame, whatever choices they made to keep climbing it or to step off, "Twenty Feet From Stardom" quietly reminds us that the definition of success is a deeply individual one, and that meaning may not be fully clear to each person until some of the glitter fades. Perhaps success is found most through learning what is truly important in life and what is not, knowing that giving freely the best of what we have and what we are to others, with an open heart, with the best that anyone can ever do.

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" opens in theaters nation-wide on June 14th. You will love it. GO!