Thursday, July 3, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom

Directed by Morgan Neville.
2013. Rated PG-13, 91 minutes.
Darlene Love
Merry Clayton
Lisa Fischer
Tata Vega
Jo Lawry
Judith Hill
Stevvi Alexander
Mick Jagger
Lou Adler
Sheryl Crow
Bette Midler
Bruce Springsteen
Stevie Wonder

To most of us, back-up singers are just instruments to help our favorite artists sound better. We forget that these are living, breathing people with dreams and aspirations. Their hopes often involve moving from the side or rear of the stage to front and center. The reasons they didn't quite make it are varied. 20 Feet from Stardom focuses on a few of these talented individuals.

During they early parts of the movie, we meet a number of ladies who give us a bird's eye view of the American music scene as far back as the 1950s. In sort of a round robin of commentary we hear various stories about how the music industry has changed over the years, including the constantly fluctuating role of the back-up singer. Interspersed throughout are tales of the solo careers that didn't result in iconic status, and some of the reasons why. The most interesting of these is the absolute stranglehold legendary producer Phil Spector had on singer Darlene Love. It's a story that shines new, unflattering light on Spector and some of American pop musics most famous songs. There's also the "not sure why they weren't bigger" careers of Tata Vega and Merry Clayton, along with the more current struggle of Judith Hill. Ms. Hill's star seemed to be shooting upward when her talents were displayed worldwide during the broadcast of Michael Jackson's funeral.

The most intriguing person in all this is Lisa Fischer. She had a hit song or two in the late 80s and seemed on the verge of becoming a bona fide superstar. Instead of continuing down that path, she opted to go on tour withe the Rolling Stones as one of their back-up singers, where she's been since 1989. She's the lead back-up, mind you, but a back-up nonetheless. Why would someone for whom the planets appear to be aligning purposely not take the plunge? It's a fascinating question with fascinating answers. Most of us assume we would leap at the chance for fame and fortune if presented the opportunity to do so. Lisa Fischer is someone who didn't.

My one major issue with 20 Feet from Stardom is that men in the industry are almost totally ignored. To be sure, it is a female dominated profession. However, the boys are all but non-existent in this film. If that's the case in real life, then fine. Even so, that could be addressed. We get a short section on the late great Luther Vandross, who started as a back-up singer for David Bowie before becoming an R&B icon. Other than that, there is a male we often see singing. However, he is only afforded a few words of his own, and nothing is offered about his story.

I'm probably making a bigger deal out of the gender thing than is warranted. The almost absence of men just strikes me as odd. Still, 20 Feet is a fun watch, particularly for music lovers. We get lots of old clips of familiar faces being performed. Among the talking heads, it's not just the ladies tooting their own horns. We get plenty of producers, scholars, and even mega-stars like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Sheryl Crow singing their praises. It breezes by as we remember and sing along to the great music being played. Even if you're too young to know these songs it will be tough to keep from dancing in your seat.


  1. Great review! I saw this is on Instant Netflix now, so I'll probably give it a shot. That's a good point to bring up gender though, I didn't realize it until now that all the reviews I've read never talked about male back up singers.

  2. If you're a music fan it's definitely worth that shot. My feelings on gender not withstanding, this is a very well done documentary.

  3. It was a good documentary. Not a great one, but still fine enough to where I can understand why exactly it won the Oscar. Good review Dell.

    1. That pretty much sums it up. I think. The Act of Killing was a much better doc, but this was far easier to swallow.

  4. I saw Lisa Fischer sing for Nine Inch Nails last October. She was great as the vocals she added to Even Deeper was just fucking great and the audience applauded. She and Sharlotte Gibson help add more soul and oomph to NIN.

    1. She is an amazing talent. I've never seen her live, but her ability shines through in the movie, as well.