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Review: 20 Feet from Stardom – Musical heroes and history you don’t know

Posted by on July 5, 2013 – 12:01 am

20 Feet from StardomThere are unsung heroes in every profession (you are probably even one yourself), people whose blood, sweat and tears are devoted to building a business, brand or organization other than their own, but whose efforts are rarely if ever noticed. The new documentary film 20 Feet from Stardom focuses on backup singers, some of the unrecognized heroes of the music world, and acknowledges their contributions to our musical culture.

If you were born after 1980, you may not recognize or care about many of the musicians in this film, but you should. If you are a fan of music from the 1960s – 70s or of music history in general, then you are sure to be fascinated by the stories documented in this very good movie by veteran music documentarian and film director, Morgan Neville.

To be honest, like most people who will see this movie, I was not familiar with the names of the backup singers showcased in this film, which includes Stevvi Alexander (Diana Ross), Merry Clayton (The Rolling Stones), Lisa Fischer (Tina Turner), Judith Hill (Michael Jackson), Darlene Love (The Crystals), Lynn Mabry (Talking Heads), The Waters Family (Paul Simon), Tata Vega (Stevie Wonder) and the sexy Claudia Lennear (Joe Cocker); but their work is familiar and has become part of our musical lexicon.

20 Feet from Stardom is an extremely entertaining look at the contributions of these amazing background vocalists, and what struck me most about each of the singers looked at in this documentary film is how intelligent and humble they are, despite their immense talent. Most have no desire to be a headlining act (although a few have those aspirations) and are content and philosophical about just having the opportunity to share their vocal talents with the world.

20 Feet from StardomSome of their stories are heartbreaking, like Darlene Love’s ghost recording of hit songs for The Crystals; songs that the girl band didn’t even know but that were credited to them (via shenanigans by infamous record producer and convicted murderer, Phil Spector.) And many of the stories are just fascinating for their historical significance, like the late night and last minute background vocals that Merry Clayton did for The Rolling Stones classic song, Gimme Shelter. Merry reminisces while in the studio where the song was recorded and as the tune plays in the background every track is slowly removed except for hers and it is a spellbinding and poignant moment that reveals how much different the tune would have been without her.

This film also offers interesting insights from well-known performers, with appearances by Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Bette Midler; all artists whose careers have benefited greatly by tapping into the hearts and souls of their backup singers. For me, Sting had the most interesting and honest observation regarding the plight of the unsung vocalists in that he suggests that despite hard work, immense talent and all the right connections, it still takes a huge amount of pure luck to be successful in the music business.

20 Feet from StardomIn addition to interviews done specifically for the film, 20 Feet from Stardom also has a vault’s worth of fun archival footage with performances by artists including David Bowie, Luther Vandross, Talking Heads and Tina Turner, as well as an intense vintage performance by Merry Clayton singing Neil Young’s Southern Man during one of her attempts to breakout as a solo artist.

This is one of the best movies so far this summer, and amidst all of the explosions, zombies and crude comedy in the theaters right now, this real-life drama with cultural importance and just plain awesome music is exceptionally entertaining and well worth seeking out. Grade: 8/10

20 Feet from Stardom plays exclusively at the Harkins Camelview theater beginning July 5th, 2013.

Photos © 2013 RADiUS-TWC