Best Documentary Feature winner at the 2014 Academy Awards, 20 Feet From Stardom is all about being recognised for your hard work. It is fitting then, that Morgan Neville’s documentary about backing singers who never quite steal the spotlight has emerged from the background to shine a bright light on the women behind the rock stars.
20 Feet From Stardom tells the story of the women (and occasionally men) whose voices millions will know but whose names and faces largely remain hidden despite their stage presence and huge vocals. Director Neville snatches the spotlight and shines it right on these figures who helped to revolutionise the sound of music and contribute to some of the best tracks in popular music history. Working with (and behind) some of the biggest and best artists in the industry (The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker), these backup singers reveal their heart ache, frustrations, but also their joy at being able to do the job they love, even if they rarely get the credit they deserve. Firmly focused on the personal stories of these singers, 20 Feet From Stardom combines interviews, archive footage and a scorching soundtrack to tremendous effect.
While 20 Feet From Stardom is most definitely about the backup artists, it also boasts an embarrassment of big stars appearing in front of the camera for interviews. The likes of Bette Midler, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder all pop up to sing the praises of those vocalists who have boosted their records, giving them soul and spirit beyond anything they could offer alone. However, Neville never allows these larger than life presences to over shadow the women whose stories 20 Feet From Stardom is really about. Jagger purrs over the beauty of some of the singers while archive performances demonstrate the relationships and importance of the star’s collaborations with their backup singers.
The documentary also acts as a damning critique of the modern music industry, exploring the rise and fall of rock and roll and the decreasing importance of raw talent in the face of celebrity culture and technological tinkering. From the church choir kids who ended up backing music sensations to the auto tuned phonies of recent times, 20 Feet From Stardom is scathing in its appraisal of how real talent can fall by the wayside, particularly in the age of televised talent show competitions and digital trickery. The difference between achieving fame and fortune and having a stupendous voice is explored with even the biggest stars acknowledging that a great deal of talent goes under the radar.
The rare footage displays some fantastic performances from the scantily clad and sultry Ikettes to Ray Charles and his Raelettes to David Bowie being backed by Luther Vandross. The songs and the singers hit the high notes and dance up a storm. Despite the stories of exploitation and unrealised ambition, the music will have you smiling from ear to ear. Spanning a range of genres and eras, the music is ever present delight and seeing the smiling singers perform can almost make you forget the behind the scenes agony.
There are so many voices to be heard and so many singers to give their proper dues that 20 Feet From Stardom occasionally feels spread a little then. Some of the bigger personalities feel like their stories deserved more screen time, particularly Darlene Love. While she spent most of her career harmonizing with others, here too her voice is only one amongst a multitude of others. From uncredited work under Phil Spector to giving it all up to become a cleaner and back to the Hall of Fame, Love’s story is unforgettable.
Merry Clayton, on the other hand, sings so awesomely on Rolling Stones records and performs so magnificently on stage with the band that the fact she is a star is neither here nor there. The magic of making music is enough for some while the hunger for solo careers that never came haunts others.
20 Feet From Stardom is a story of sacrifice and reward where personal stories of those who have spent their years in the shadow of stars are brilliantly told. 20 Feet From Stardom is both triumphant and tragic; a wakeup call to a music industry that many will argue is in danger of descending down the pan.