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20 Feet from Stardom

Posted by martinteller on July 9, 2013

Background vocalists.  You don’t often think about them, you rarely know their names.  But, for some songs at least, they are the heart of the music.  Sometimes they’re the best part of the song, the part you sing along to with the most gusto.  Voices in harmony, the voice of the soul, the voice of the universe that surrounds the “lead” singer.  This documentary explores the people and the dreams behind those voices.

There’s a juicy irony in the poster for this movie.  It reads: “Meet the unsung heroes behind the greatest music of our time.”  Further down the poster, in larger letters, in reads: “FEATURING BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN STING MICK JAGGER STEVIE WONDER AND BETTE MIDLER.”  Guess what names don’t appear anywhere on the poster?  Darlene Love, Lynn Mabry, Tata Vega, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, The Waters Family, Janice Pendarvis.  Even in the film’s marketing material, the unsung heroes remain unsung.  Of the main group of subjects, I myself was familiar with only a few (Love, Mabry and Fischer).

Some of them don’t want to be stars.  They’re musically fulfilled in their backup role.  Some tried for a solo career and made it (Sheryl Crow, for example).  Most made a grab for the brass ring but for whatever reason never caught on with the public.  But they remain legendary among those in the business, known for their talent, versatility and reliability.

The film is structured well, incorporating archival footage (including electrifying scenes of Mabry in one of my favorite movies, Stop Making Sense) and new performances but primarily staying focused on the fascinating interviews.  While the roster of “stars” is impressive and it’s nice to hear these established names give their backup singers respect, it’s the singers themselves who provide the best anecdotes and insights.  There’s a lot of enlightening, charming and amusing stories being told, revealing not just the process and personalities but also social issues like gender and race.

One issue that I wish had been covered in greater depth is the decline of the use of backup singers in recent years.  It’s touched on briefly, but I would have liked to have the topic explored with more depth.  Only one of the subjects (Hill) is a young, contemporary singer and there should be more explanation of the reasons why the heyday was the 60’s through 80’s.

But overall it’s a very satisfying overview and a ton of fun to watch.  Morgan Neville assembles the film in a way that’s engaging and non-intrusive, letting the subjects shine with their natural charm and talent.  Well worth seeing.  Rating: Very Good (84)

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