What is the distance between fame and obscurity? “20 Feet from Stardom” filmmaker Morgan Neville not only shines a spotlight on the world of backup singers, but in doing so, also uncovers the mysterious set of laws that seem to dictate fame in our world.
Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and countless others whose famous voices have received little to no recognition until now, share their stories of working in the music industry and the hard work and talent that it takes to harmonize and blend one’s voice beautifully and seamlessly in the background to complement a soloist. Although the backup singer has become a rarity in today’s digital music world, backup vocals were a staple in countless songs that changed music and rock ‘n roll forever.
First of all, “20 Feet” gives you an incredible appreciation for this work, and the talent of these (mostly black, female) voices. Their body of work is astounding, and the appreciation of the big-name performing artists who provide testimonials in the film is clear. They understand how backup vocals fill out a track and take it to the next level.
In fact, the more you see and the more enamored you become with the film’s subjects, the more you begin to wonder why they never became stars themselves? We they too complacent? Were they too willing to check their egos? Do they even have egos? Does the music industry completely control who becomes a star, regardless of talent? The film peels back the curtain a bit on fame and allows you to examine it through a different lens.
As you’d hope in a film about music, “20 Feet” uses editing to its advantage, creating a lot of moods and emotional moments. The storytelling structure also sets up these big questions, exposing us to the history of backup singers and these women’s talent and then slipping in kernels of new and in some cases revelatory information or moments with the subjects that further complicate the ideas of fame, etc.
“20 Feet” has an easy, entertaining subject matter, but it does more than bring you inside the world of backup singers and impress you with the “untold” side of rock ‘n roll music. There’s something intellectual underlying this film, something that reveals some fundamental truths about our world and our society that elevates from the pack of soft-hitting entertainment industry documentaries.
Twenty Feet from Stardom
Written and Directed by Morgan Neville