Dir: Morgan Neville. US. 2013. 90mins
A heartfelt tribute to the unheralded backup singers who have provided the emotional firepower to countless indelible pop songs over the years, Twenty Feet From Stardom may follow the template of so many rock documentaries before it, but the movie’s breezy execution makes the familiarity go down smoothly. Director Morgan Neville thoughtfully examines race and gender in his study of a handful of established African-American vocalists who have had to make peace with being second-class citizens in the music industry, but the movie’s message of being true to one’s own voice will probably resonate louder with audiences.
Twenty Feet looks at the rise of these women as emblematic of political and social upheaval of the time, while also investigating why some backup singers were able to parlay their talent into stardom while others disappeared into obscurity.
Since its premiere at Sundance, Twenty Feet From Stardom has played other festivals, including opening the Mimai International Film Festival and at True/False, in preparation for RADiUS-TWC’s release of the film in the US in June. This crowd-pleasing documentary should be a hit among older viewers who came of age listening to the ‘60s and ‘70s hits referenced in the movie, as should R&B fans. But even if theatrical business hits a few bum notes, Twenty Feet should enjoy plenty of play on cable and on-demand.
Neville, a veteran music documentary filmmaker who co-directed Johnny Cash’s America and Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied, seeks to shine a spotlight on backup vocalists, who haven’t received much attention or respect for their contribution to pop music. Speaking with female African-American singers like Merry Clayton (who sang on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter) and Darlene Love (an integral component in many of producer Phil Spector’s hits), Twenty Feet looks at the rise of these women as emblematic of political and social upheaval of the time, while also investigating why some backup singers were able to parlay their talent into stardom while others disappeared into obscurity.
Incorporating testimonials from rock royalty like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, who speak glowingly about the importance of backup vocalists, Twenty Feet does a solid job illuminating how African-American singers drew from gospel traditions to deliver their soulful, impassioned performances that outclassed their white counterparts’ toothless vocal stylings. There’s also some fun to be had in hearing Clayton recall the unlikely events that led her to belting out the feverish chorus to Gimme Shelter. As a history lesson on the evolution of American R&B — and its crossover into rock ‘n’ roll — Twenty Feet is instructive without overwhelming the audience.
Because Neville has such affection for his subjects — which includes up-and-comer Judith Hill, who was slated to be featured on Michael Jackson’s comeback tour before he died — his movie tends to be a soft-focus analysis that offers some insight into these women but settles on a feel-good tone. No doubt the filmmaker is betting that simply letting these singers show off their still-potent voices will be rewarding enough, and he’s largely correct, allowing the audience to marvel at the supple pleasures of angelic human voices.
As fun as Twenty Feet is, it’s somewhat disappointing that Neville resolves his film in a traditional rock-doc way, pulling his skilled vocalists together for one big jam session. Along those same lines, the movie indulges in follow-your-dreams platitudes that, while earnest, seem trite after engaging in a discussion about the many legitimate challenges facing backup singers in an era in which their talents are less and less appreciated. For better or worse, though, Twenty Feet seems bound and determined to make sure you leave the theatre with a song in your heart.
Production company: Tremolo Productions
Domestic distribution: RADiUS-TWC, http://weinsteinco.com/radius/
Producers: Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers
Executive producers: George Conrades, Art Bilger, Peter Morton, Joel S. Ehrenkranz
Cinematography: Nicola B. Marsh, Graham Willoughby
Editors: Jason Zeldes, Kevin Klauber