Dir. Morgan Neville
(2013, PG-13, 91 minutes)
Watching 20 Feet from Stardom will make you wonder if the music industry is broken. The women profiled here could sing circles around most artists on the Billboard charts.
That’s the biggest takeaway from this very appealing music documentary by director Morgan Neville, which chronicles the lives and careers of background singers who have performed some of the best remembered vocals on tracks by the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, and many more: It’s possible to become a headlining star with limited ability if you have a big enough ego, but it’s not possible to be a successful backup singer without talent, because it’s all about the voice, plain and simple.
The singers profiled are mostly women, and mostly black, and Neville explores their work through the context of culture (gospel call-and-response inspired many of the burgeoning styles of the ’60s and ’70s), race, and business: for instance, Darlene Love, the film’s central subject, still harbors anger at Phil Spector, who used her voice to make hits for other acts.
The film benefits greatly from the music itself, which alone would make it worth seeing. Particularly striking is Lisa Fischer, who describes the pleasure and spiritual power she derives from singing and is periodically shown in beautiful close-ups vamping in a recording studio. In those moments she and the film demonstrate the unique and undervalued art of singing in its purest form, as the precise, perfect moment where sound meets emotion.