Review by-Jarrett Leahy
You don’t know their names, but their prodigious impact on the history of rock ‘n roll is undeniable. 20 Feet From Stardom is a fascinating documentary that explores the essential, yet, at times, thankless profession of the background singer. Through interviews with a group of featured backup vocalists and the legendary artists they sing for, director Morgan Neville brings to light one of the most interesting unexplored aspects of popular music history.
Contrary to popular opinion, not all gifted singers have the ambition to be lead artists. As the film discusses, it takes a person with desire, drive, and thick skin to deal with the daily pressures of being the one everyone else is relying on. However, for the many background vocalists that do aspire to greatness, a large number quickly learn the music industry is not a level playing field. If it were, Lisa Fischer and her heavenly voice would not be a one-album wonder. However, as Sting so perfectly put it during his interview, the business is not really about talent, but more about luck and circumstance. 20 Feet shares the difficulties, pitfalls, and failures these capable women faced and still face in their careers.
As a music fan myself, I was amazed at how much I wasn’t aware of. A 2011 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Darlene Love is the quintessential backup singer success story. However, what the film so adeptly brings to the surface is the shameful treatment Darlene had to overcome to achieve such high success. Another facet that adds to the documentary’s insight is the filmmaker’s access to an incredible array of music legends including the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder, all of whom openly gush their adoration for these talented vocalists and their vital impact on some of the most beloved songs. I personally loved one particular moment during Mick Jagger’s interview about his famed song Gimme Shelter when Neville isolated Merry Clayton’s eminent backup vocals, allowing us to fully grasp their powerful impact. It gave me chills.
However, more than anything else, what makes this film a delight to watch is the true joy and irresistible passion these ladies have for sharing their exceptional musical gifts. Winner of the 2013 Academy award for Best Documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom is an eye-opening celebration of a group of talented, unheralded artists. Informative and uplifting, this is a documentary that has something for every level of music fan, from novice to aficionado. 20 Feet From Stardom is an inspiring piece of cinema that delves deep to show the lasting imprint these exceptional vocalists have had on music history.-JL