It is perhaps fitting that my first proper film review should be of a film that’s subject matter is steeped in musical history and tradition – a subject I am all too familiar with writing about. 20 Feet from Stardom – the Academy award winning documentary from director Morgan Neville – is a joyous and uplifting film which, despite being drawn from within music, focuses more on people.
The film follows the career highs and lows of a group of popular and successful backing singers from the heyday of rock and roll through to their modern manifestation of the music industry. However, these people – mainly women – are only popular and successful in a very narrow sense; the film’s clear agenda is to bring greater exposure to these gifted vocalists, musicians and artists. Though popular amongst musical historians and aficionados and successful in terms of the quality of what they have produced, the casual music listener will probably not know their names and financial gain from their artistic output has been minimal and, at times, withheld. It is an unfortunate oversight that these supremely gifted individuals are, in fact, totally under-appreciated for all they have contributed to the music industry.
Documentary films are tricky to properly execute, especially when most of the production consists of stock concert footage and talking head interviews. As a result, 20 Feet from Stardom, like some documentary films, at times does not often feel overly cinematic. However, the viewer is very quickly made to forget they are supposed to be watching a film in the cinema thanks to the compelling nature of each individual’s story and the neat way in which the filmmaker weaves the power of those involved and their musical contributions – ultimately what our attention should be drawn towards – through the film from the very beginning.
The film follows the likes of Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, whose CVs read like the most exciting, star-studded festival line up in music history; Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads, Sting, Michael Jackson and a myriad of other stars have called upon these singers to appear on their records and alongside them on stage. The movie highlights their incomparable vocal talents as well as outlining their struggles with remaining in the shadows or breaking out into the limelight. These moments drift into a melancholy that makes the warm, if a little contrived, musical finale of the film even more uplifting. Sometimes the accounts of their plight – whether it is their failure to make it as a solo act, the story of Phil Spector presenting Darlene Love’s vocal track as that of another, more marketable artist or becoming “out of date” in an ever changing and evolving music scene – come across as a damning critique of the music industry and how it uses and abuses those who love it. While necessary, this often takes away from the human stories that should remain at the film’s centre. For every conversation like that, there is the likes of the isolated Merry Clayton vocal track from The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ – a glorious centrepiece that, I confess, gave me shivers.
With that contrast lies the ultimate strength and problem with 20 Feet from Stardom. This is a film about people who love music and creativity, and when they end up chasing stardom they cannot attain – something which Sting, in a rare moment of shaman-like wisdom mythologising about the music industry puts down to “just luck” – they end up back in a place where they can simply sing for the sheer joy of it. The audible aspects of the film make it “must hear” more than “must see”, and because of that it baffles me why a not-very-cinematic documentary would win an Oscar over The Act of Killing, a film which is about a good many things, one of which is making films.
My misgivings about 20 Feet from Stardom’s deservedness as an Oscar winner should not be taken to mean that the film is not the awareness raising, feel good movie it strives to be. If it means that the backing singers that were profiled in the movie, or backing singers generally as a profession, gain more of the plaudits they deserve, then the documentary has achieved its goal. While the filmic aspect lacks, I am loathe to suggest that viewing 20 Feet from Stardom was anything but an interesting and enjoyable treat allowing another in depth look at a part of the music industry where a wealth of secrets and stories are still buried.