20 Feet from Stardom Movie Review: Backup Singers Take Center Stage

When 20 Feet from Stardom won the Best Documentary Film award at the most recent Oscars, there was some chatter about how the film won in part because it was, frankly, less of a bummer than the other nominees, particularly The Act of Killing. A lot of the people backing that film to win bristled at the presumption than 20 Feet from Stardom took home the award simply because it was funner and more enoyable to sit through, as if though being entertaining wasn’t, you know, integral to filmmaking and movie quality. All that aside, even on its own merits, 20 Feet from Stardom is a fine film for any music fan to watch.

The film focuses on backup singers, hence the title, spending time with some of the best, most notable ones from across the years. From Darlene Love, who has experienced a real renaissance in recent years, to relative newcomer Judith Hill, the movie was able to spend some time with a lot of folks who have had a major impact in the world of music, often without anybody knowing their names. There’s Love, whose vocals were secretly used on a couple songs by The Crystals. There’s Merry Clayton, who sang on “Gimme Shelter.” There’s Lisa Fischer, who won a Grammy as a solo artist, but now finds herself back in the world of backup singers. A wealth of experience, and of interesting anecdotes, spring forth from the movie.

In addition to all these backup singers, there are testimonials and sound bites from some of the most significant musicians of, well, ever, such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder. They all have respect for the backup vocalist. They know the importance of such people, how they can take a good song and make it great, how the parts they sing are often what people find stuck in their heads.

Of course, it isn’t all fun and games. There is plenty of talk about some of the lows for these musicians. Many of them tried to have solo careers of their own, with little to no success. One day, you’re palling around with The Rolling Stones. The next, you are an afterthought.

While this isn’t the most substantive documentary, or even the best music documentary, it is a good movie. The history is interesting, the interview subjects are engaging, and, of course, the music is fantastic. If you have ever listened to a song with backup singers on it, which is to say if you’ve ever listened to music, there is a reason to check out 20 Feet from Stardom. Documentaries aren’t supposed to be about taking your medicine.

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Elizabeth Periale

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