For music enthusiasts, 20 Feet From Stardom is a treat. Director Morgan Neville’s slick documentary explores the lives of several experienced back-up singers, musicians who are just as much attached to the iconic songs of the last several decades as the superstars who’s names are on them. Through interviews with a handful of the most well respected back-up vocalists in the industry, complemented with sound bites from a variety of superstars including Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler, and Mick Jagger, we get a glimpse into their lives and what drives them to give so much of themselves creatively for so little credit.
Neville does a good job weaving the narratives of the interviewees into a celebratory tapestry, even if it never goes a whole lot deeper than your average American Masters episode. But there’s no doubt that these women are extraordinarily talented and deserve their own showcase, and 20 Feet From Stardom hits the right notes of warmth and grace to provide that. It also provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the creation of some all-time classic songs.
The story that resonates the most concerns Darlene Love, who started working with producer Phil Spector at an early age. She quickly became popular due to her powerful voice and assisted on various hit tracks in the ’50s and ‘60s. Spector promised her a solo career, but he ended up giving away her songs for other groups to claim as their own, often when it was still her voice on the final mix, before essentially blacklisting her from the music business. She eventually made a triumphant return and today, she’s left a huge impression on fellow musicians and audiences alike.
Another veteran subject is Lisa Fischer, who cut her teeth singing for Luther Vandross and went on to be the go-to back up vocalist for The Rolling Stones. Yet in 1991, she managed some solo success with the release of her album So Intense , which spawned a chart-topping single and a Grammy award. But when she failed to record a follow-up record as quickly as her label wanted her to, she was dropped and her career as a solo artist dissipated.
One of the most pertinent questions Neville investigates is whether these singers are content or if they long for the spotlight. At first, they all reject the idea of fame, explaining that they do it because they love the music. Yet as the film progresses, notes of melancholy about failed opportunities surface. It begins to seem like something they struggle with often, which makes sense. When you’re that close to the spotlight, do you want to take those tricky final steps?
Is 20 Feet From Stardom Opening Weekend Worthy?
Like I said, if you’re a music enthusiast, you’ll find a lot to like here, but otherwise, I’m not sure it’s necessarily a film you need to rush out and go see. It is a fun and fairly informative doc with a ton of great music though, so definitely not a bad way to spend a night at the cinema.
20 Feet From Stardom opens on Friday, July 5, 2013 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Check the website for screening info.
20 Feet From Stardom Trailer
20 Feet From Stardom Production Gallery
MORE FROM TORONTO FILM SCENE