Director: Morgan Neville
Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill
Release date: June 13th, 2013
Running time: 90 minutes
Best part: The interviews.
Worst part: The overt symbolism.
The best documentaries take subjects of little commercial interest and thrust them into the spotlight. With each production, these informative works may inspire or disgust. Despite cynical preconceived ideas about documentary filmmaking, movies like 20 Feet from Stardom are far more entertaining than many expansive Hollywood efforts. Peeling back layers developed by heartache and fond memories, this well-crafted and ambitious movie explores a vital strand of popular music. This documentary, thanks to its informative structure and unique interviewees, is one of 2013’s greatest surprises. I could talk all day about this movie’s glowing highlights because, honestly, positive word of mouth is needed for this year’s most ground-breaking documentaries.
As the unsung heroes of modern music, backup singers support popular groups. Despite the overwhelming talent at the front of each stage, backup singers bravely place themselves in full view. Movie and live music audiences generally focus on both art forms’ most controversial and appealing aspects. However, like character actors, backup singers provide heart, character, and consistency. This documentary, focusing on several inspirational African-American women, is an intriguing and heartfelt examination of pop culture. In the opening scenes, we are welcomed into this interesting and engaging world. Soul singer Darlene Love reunites with her backup-singer companions. Reflecting upon fond memories, Love and co. relay vital information about their connections to music, family, and spirituality. Merry Clayton, a gospel singing icon, reflects upon great musicians including The Rolling Stones. Starting out with church choirs and ceremonial performances, the interviewees deliberate on transitioning from first recitals to overwhelming stardom. The gorgeous Claudia Lennear discusses her relationship with the ‘sexiness’ of pop culture and Mick Jagger’s stardom. Lisa Fischer deliberates on her professional and personal livelihoods. Fischer’s determination and energy, encapsulated by powerful vocals, places her in the all-important spotlight. On the other side of the coin, 29-year-old Judith Hill, workaholic and optimistic soul, speaks out about the modern music industry’s wheelings and dealings. These singers, with several engaging similarities despite the generational gaps, focus on their frustrating yet engaging profession.
From the first second, 20 Feet from Stardom establishes itself as a profound and in-depth analysis of music, culture, and hope. This art form, placing a powerful stranglehold on every demographic throughout history, is depicted as a source of knowledge, happiness, and inspiration. Veteran music documentary director Morgan Neville (Johnny Cash’s America) reminds us that individuality and rebelliousness cause ripple effects. For these select few singers, their ripples hit family members, friends, fans, and music industry types. For the most part, Neville presents these interviewees as fair and honest individuals. After efficiently establishing their career highlights, the movie delves into far more sinister territory. In the opening few scenes, Neville focuses on the present. With little knowledge about influential backup singers, I found an enlightening avenue to explore. Thankfully, the movie chronicles each subject’s enviable and empathetic traits. Love, for example, is presented as an ordinary citizen with magnificent memories. Neville, optimistically, presents these subjects as humble and bright figures. They, despite their brushes with fame and fortune, view the world like everyone else. From an early age, family, religion, and artistic value influenced these subjects to pursue this career. Here, certain origin stories are compared to one another. This style, highlighting choir and gospel music’s immense value, links these influential artists. Ultimately, intertwining strands illuminate 20 Feet from Stardom‘s narrative and themes. Born from hilarious anecdotes and fond friendships, the movie examines art, culture, and equality’s historical and thematic relevance. Neville’s work also delves into personal stories and race relations. Neville, infatuated with each subject, focuses on every profound word. Taboo subjects, including Lennear’s controversial Playboy shoot, are tenderly and stylishly reflected upon. Neville, Love and co. present several opinions and anecdotes for viewers to analyse. However, despite the glowing interviewees and over-whelming musical montages, the movie isn’t perfect.
“How can you logically not have a diva have her music on? I don’t get that.” (Merry Clayton, 20 Feet from Stardom).
The structure, despite touching upon the 20th Century’s greatest musicians, wavers throughout the final third. The movie, without delivering a satisfactory conclusion, is occasionally presented as generic PR material. Despite these gripes, the minor flaws are matched by the stellar direction and production design. Neville – presenting his subjects as saviours, sisters, queens, and warriors – douses the screen with selective visual flourishes. After the engaging opening credit sequence, the movie delves into stardom and pop culture’s most enlightening aspects. Consistently, Neville plays archival footage and classic tunes. Reflecting upon several glorious and influential moments, this style highlights Love and co.’s stranglehold upon music history. However, in the second half, the snappy visuals are replaced with confronting personal stories. These moments, though dour, deliver several necessary gut punches. Placed in a specific timeline, these scenes outline the pros and cons of this alluring profession. Unfortunately, despite each anecdote’s worthiness, Neville’s heavy handedness sticks out. With ludicrous symbolism under-cutting several points, the final third belabours the all-important messages. Fortunately, in the movie’s most subtle moments, the interviewees are engaging, enthusiastic, and likeable. Love, known for her profound artistic endeavours, is a warming presence. Defined by her distinctive chuckle, her stories – describing everything from house cleaning to Lethal Weapon supporting roles – will lift audience spirits. The same goes for Clayton’s baffling tales of stardom and rejection. With her awe-inspiring vocals, Clayton brought one of The Rolling Stones’ most popular hits to life. Playing ‘Gimme Shelter’ back to Clayton, Neville illustrates her cultural importance. The song’s standout line – “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away” – sends chills down the spine. In addition, renowned and caricature-like musicians including Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting support the documentary’s many stirling points.
With a heartfelt narrative, intriguing interviewees, and pulsating visuals, 20 Feet from Stardom is an underrated documentary delving into an obscure art form. Delving into race relations, fame, and femininity, Neville’s work pushes boundaries whilst delivering an entertaining thrill-ride. Oscar consideration is around the corner for this transcendent, tender, and enjoyable trip down memory lane.