20 Feet From Stardom is a delightful, intelligently constructed commemoration to some of the heroes of music, the supremely talented ladies - mostly of whom are African American - who made a career twenty feet removed from the spotlight by embracing their vital roles as backup vocalists. But, the question is, why aren't they stars in their own right? In Morgan Neville’s immensely satisfying documentary we are privileged to the intimate tales of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, the Waters siblings and others as they reveal their unique experiences as backup vocalists. Neville takes relevant tangents, bouncing between the accounts to not only paint a convincing depiction of their individual value, but comment on the industry as a whole. While many of us have heard these voices, their contributions undoubtedly vital pieces of every song, how many of us knew where that voice was coming from? This is an insightful study of the enormous spirit of these women and their often under-appreciated role. There is an unwavering enthusiasm to the film, both fascinating and joyously uplifting. The live concert footage is incredible and I knew this was a winner almost immediately when we are shown several clips of ‘Slippery People’ from Talking Heads’ amazing concert film ‘Stop Making Sense’.
Darlene Love is perhaps the most famous of the women interviewed, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at age 70 following a stellar career, which included joining all-girl group, The Blossoms, straight out of high school. She resurrected a solo career in the 80s following some disheartening uncredited singles when working with Phil Spector. Being a part of the infectious energy of the California-based Waters siblings, who have harmonised on ‘Thriller’ and ‘The Lion King’ soundtrack, amongst many other gigs, is another highlight.
We are privileged to the accounts of some huge rock stars - Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting and Stevie Wonder amongst them - as they positively reflect on their experiences and praise the women for their contributions. Some of the stories are incredibly inspiring; Merry Clayton's teary reflection on her middle of the night mission to perform a duet with Mick Jagger on ‘Gimme Shelter’ is a story I doubt I will ever forget. I can’t think about that amazing song in the same way. The incomparable talent, Lisa Fischer, who has one of the most amazing voices I have ever heard, has been touring with The Rolling Stones since 1989, and has a career lined with impressive credentials. Just watching her rehearse is an electrifying experience.
I loved that the film tracks the entirety of their careers, culminating with where the different women have ended up. Some, like Love, have resurrected their singing careers, some, like Claudia Lennear, were forced into different lives and others, like Fischer, are content with simply singing. The film also shifts generations and focuses on Judith Hill, a talented youngster who rejects settling for backup gigs to focus on her solo ambitions.
With inspiring stories, amazing voices and rousing concert footage, 20 Feet From Stardom is an energetic and cinematic documentary that sheds essential light on these Hall Of Fame worthy performers who contributed their talents to some of rock’s biggest acts, securing widespread admiration without ever being in the limelight. This is a willing tribute to these talents, providing them an open environment to convey their experiences and inviting the audience to participate.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22