There are some categories at the Academy Awards where winning the Oscar garners attention to a lesser known, smaller release film. The short film categories (both animated and live action) can help to expose up-and-coming filmmakers as they are beginning their careers, and the Documentary category highlights some great documentary films which had come out in the past year which by and large are unseen by wide audiences. Documentaries are not always the easiest films to gain access to, particularly if you do not seek them out; outside of the film festival circuit, it is rare to find a documentary film in your local cinema, and this is unfortunate as there are a lot of spectacular documentaries made every year. Thanks to the proliferation of streaming services however, it is becoming easier to find documentaries, and Netflix now has the Academy Award winning documentary for 2013: “20 Feet From Stardom”.
Written and directed by Morgan Neville, “20 Feet From Stardom” is a behind the scenes exploration of the lives of backup singers, the vocal artists who provide the harmonies supporting lead singers, and are often providing the parts of the song that you yourself are singing along to (something you will definitely discover in this film). “20 Feet” focuses primarily on Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear and Judith Hill, with several other backup singers providing (briefer) looks at their personal stories. Interspersed around their stories are interviews from artists like Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Stevie Wonder providing the perspective of lead artists on the backup singers’ roles in their music.
The film is largely charming and contains a lot of the joy in seeing people who really love music, performing and doing what they love for a living. While the narrative of the film is in some places rather unclear, as Neville is jumping between the stories of several backup vocalists throughout, the overall thread of the film works in delivering the audience the interesting stories of these different artists. This is one of the few films out there that would probably benefit from an extended run time as the 90 minute film actually does seem a bit clipped, preventing any in-depth detail from really capturing your attention. That said, the pacing of “20 Feet From Stardom” is very comfortable, and if you are at all interested in the subject matter, the film never drags itself down; it is an enjoyable experience that will often get your toes tapping.
The exploration of the difficulty in making the transition from backup artist to solo artist is also interesting as you can tell that these backup vocalists are immensely talented and could very well be solo artists and you will get attached to these women as they struggle with the careers. While most of the women were backup artists in the 1960s through the 1980s (some still working today), the inclusion of Judith Hill, a modern backup vocalist, was a welcome shift near the end of the film, particularly in how it seemed to organically develop within the narrative. As we had started with the history of the backup vocalists and their attempts to go out alone in a solo career, it was refreshing to see a new artist attempting to push her way to become solo artist.
This is a definite recommended watch for the music fan, particularly those of you who are fans of pop music from the 1960s through rock music of the 1970s to artists like David Bowie and The Rolling Stones. You will be amazed at how many songs you will recognize the voices of theses tremendously talented women and men in, and it is a treat to listen to and watch them perform in the studios. Again, “20 Feet From Stardom” is available on Netflix right now, and it is very much worth your time.