The poster for 20 Feet from Stardom features impassioned back-up artist Judith Hill singing into a microphone. Below her is the title of the film in large pink and white text. Underneath the title, where one might expect to see the names of other back-up legends like Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, The Waters, Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, and Táta Vega, the text instead reads “Featuring Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Bette Midler.”
In something of an ironic twist, the film about the singers who made everyone from Lou Reed to The Talking Heads the sensations that they were still can’t resist trotting out the names of major singers onto its posters in order to attract moviegoers. I suppose this is the way of the film (and indeed music) industry, but this faux pas only serves to further emphasize how these artists never truly got their shot in the limelight, and why it is so important to tell their stories.
Because of this, I can’t fault director Morgan Neville for his mission; by making this film, he has put the spotlight on the oft-forgotten mothers and fathers of modern pop culture. However, filmmaking missteps like his overuse of improbably lit B-roll footage of his subjects sitting on stools looking wistful can start to feel artificial and hammy. The argument could be made that these moments reflect the self-described diva personae of these young artists, but it is hard not feel that they still undercut the message of the raw love and mystique of singing for which these artists live.
Theatrics aside, most of Neville’s decisions actually do lend a lot to the narrative. His long background as a documentary filmmaker consistently shines through. Many of the important scenes, as well as the transitions that connect them, feature slick computer-generated tricks and effects that give a strong sense of production value to the movie.
In one stand-out sequence, singer Lisa Fischer riffs into a microphone in a recording studio. After a few seconds, another flawlessly-added Lisa Fischer appears next to the first and starts harmonizing. Then two more appear, all adding another layer of vocals to the track. While this is a visual treat for the audience, it also helps the viewer to understand how these artists think, listening to the other parts in a song to determine how they can sing in compliment to the core track.
Directorial choices aside, the real focus of the film should be Vega, Love, Hill, Clayton, Fischer, the Waters family, and Lennear. To the film’s credit, about 80% or more of the movie gives screen time to these remarkable singers. While legends like Jagger and Sting do appear every so often to emphasize the importance of these singers’ contributions to their own success as superstars, the narrative predominantly follows the careers of the lesser-known performers.
Almost all of the main subjects in the film are both female and black. This leads to some thought-provoking commentary on the part of both the singers themselves, as well as the filmmaker. The audience is made to understand what it meant to be a black woman in show business, and what it was like to work as a dancer/singer for people like Ray Charles or Ike and Tina Turner. From hyper-sexualized performances to racially controversial tracks, back-up singers took whatever work they could in order to support themselves (and their families if they had any time to start one).
At one point, the Waters family sits around a table and discusses their past work. As they effortlessly break into song, it becomes clear that without them, everything from James Cameron’s monster hit Avatar to the classic sitcom Growing Pains owe it to this legendary family for their signature themes and sounds. Quite simply, they singlehandedly changed the landscape of media entertainment – and almost no one even knows who they are.
This inside look at the evolution of music from the late 20th century is of critical importance to American culture, and yet it remains entirely overlooked. 20 Feet from Stardom is a good movie, but I recommend it as if it is a great one, simply because it is important that every American see it. Every citizen of the United States must understand the contributions that back-up artists have made not only to their own medium, but to the the entire world of film, music, and show business.
Each time these singers open their mouths to belt out a note is stunning in its own right; despite their age, even the most aged of the group haven’t lost a beat. But what is even more beautiful is that they all do what they do simply for the sake of the craft itself, for the joy of creating an amazing sound that cannot exist without the help of other perfectly-tuned voices. That’s love, in point of fact, and these women have it.
Verdict: Movie Win