Taking notice of generally uncelebrated but integral back up singers, 20 Feet From Stardom is very good, if not quite exceptional.
Unlike The Square, filmmaking technique does not propel this one, probably because 20 Feet From Stardom uses a standard talking head format, combined with equally familiar editing that alternates between interviews and cutaways to discussed topics.
That isn’t a flaw, however, because the film’s personalities are compelling enough to keep the picture interesting. Darlene Love, Mary Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill and the rest have interesting stories, and Director Morgan Neville lets each of them talk to us, lets them be our focus.
There are times 20 Feet From Stardom is borderline heartbreaking, especially when Love bemoans the ways Phil Specter road-blocked her career; when Clayton and Lennear regret not finding solo success; and when Hill discusses Michael Jackson’s death, her grief at losing him, her refusal to continue singing back up, and eventually her choice to start again.
Through stories like these, 20 Feet From Stardom communicates its dominant theme: the music industry is not fair, especially not to minority singers. Talent is not enough to overcome the industry’s inequity.
Neville is wise enough not to let such negativity overwhelm the picture. At various turns he gives us cause to celebrate. Consider when Sting spotlights his backup singers; when Love resolves to pursue her career after a sabbatical; when Fischer wins a Grammy; and so forth.
But Neville proves even more successful each time he transitions from joy to sullenness, as when Fischer discusses failing to complete a second album.
In other words, the director skillfully alternates between light-hearted and heavier moments, using the dichotomy to keep us invested.
As a music documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom works.
But it never transcends genre. Despite thematic application to other walks of life, the documentary doesn’t attempt to make connections to society at large. It is content to maintain focus on the music industry, a fact that mightn’t reduce its quality but does limit its audience and impact.
Still, this film achieves its primary objectives, and I recommend it.