20 feet from Stardom is a 2013 American documentary by Morgan Neville which explores the world and history of background singers in American pop music. The film is a soulful, empathetic look at the talented people who are often ignored in the music industry or never given the recognition and stardom they deserve.
The film is rather affectionate towards the many big background singers from the 1960s and 1970s. We learn about the careers and fates of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer among others. Most of these singers have adventurous tales and erratic career trajectories. Many failed to make it as solo artists and there is a sobering tone when it comes to the difficulty of launching a successful solo career. Some of the singers abandoned their careers and some abandoned attempts at a solo career however there are success stories. The biggest one is arguably Darlene Love who, I was astounded to learn, appeared in the classic 1980s buddy cop series Lethal Weapon. Her story epitomizes the American dream: it’s a harrowing tale about a woman with loads of talent who manages to persevere and work hard and, despite the hardships, come out on top. The film also puts the spotlight on a few younger background singers such as Judith Hill, who is trying to launch a full solo career. There are also a number of popular musicians such as Sting, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder who are interviewed. All of them praise the importance of background singers to, not only their own music, but to pop music.
It is a fun, entertaining film that manages to educate the viewer while utilizing a fantastic soundtrack that is almost always made-up of the hit songs worked on by the various singers. It is a good, easy film to watch and not just for people who are fans of old school pop music. . As someone who rarely watches or enjoys documentary films it succeeded in reeling me in. One of the aspects of the film that I wish was more prevalent was the role of racism in relegating these women to be lost to history. The film touches upon it but it strays from really delving deeply into the topic. Understandably the focus is more on the music and the quasi-spiritual relationship many of these talented singers have with it.
It has been hugely successful with extremely high metacritic and rottentomates scores showing the extremely positive reviews it received. This success also extended to the 86th Academy Awards where the film was awarded best documentary film, beating out the excellent Act of Killing. As someone who thought Act of Killing was fantastic I can understand why it was beaten by 20 feet from stardom. The film is an uplifting look at the beautiful music and the beautiful people responsible for helping to produce some amazing music
This fantastic documentary will be exhibited by CINSSU on Friday September 12th as part of the Free Friday Films program. It will be screened in the auditorium at Alumni Hall at 7pm. You can find the full Free Friday films schedule here.