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Indie Snapshot: 20 Feet From Stardom

by Ethan Alter June 14, 2013 11:27 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>20 Feet From Stardom</i>

The new documentary 20 Feet From Stardom makes a nice companion piece to the 2002 rock doc, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which profiled the life and times of the previously unheralded Funk Brothers, the session band that played underneath so many Motown hits. Likewise, 20 Feet, seeks to spotlight a group of musicians whose contributions so often go unheralded: backup singers -- the men and women who stand in the recesses of the stage, providing vocal support to the frontmen and frontwomen whom the audience is screaming for.

Director Morgan Neville fills out his cast with some of the most prolific practitioners of the art of backup singing, starting with Darlene Love, who got into the business in the '60s singing backup and lead vocals (though she was never credited for the latter) on a number of Phil Spector-produced tracks, including such famous tunes as "He's a Rebel" and "Da Doo Ron Ron." Love's contemporary, Claudia Lennear, who sang with the Rolling Stones in the early '70s (and allegedly inspired the group's hit track "Brown Sugar") before leaving the music industry after years of professional frustration, is also interviewed here, with the woman who eventually replaced her as the Stones' number one backup artist, Lisa Fischer. And then there's the "baby" of the group, Judith Hill, who was set to play a major role in Michael Jackson's comeback tour before the King of Pop's untimely death. It's not mentioned in 20 Feet due to the movie having been completed some time ago, but Hill was recently featured on the fourth season of NBC's The Voice and made it deep into the competition, though not to the final three. (Although these four emerge as the primary "stars" of the film, a number of other backup singers pass through the frame as well, though it's interesting to note that only one or two of them are men. And while that probably is an accurate reflection of the backup singer population in the recording industry, it would have been interesting to explore the apparent gender gap a little.) Interspersed with the subjects' interviews are testimonials from center stage stars like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting, who speak to the professional and personal challenges that can accompany a career spent just outside of the limelight.

Perhaps the most valuable service that 20 Feet from Stardom provides is that it functions as a kind of reality check to shows like The Voice and American Idol, which are designed to tempt impressionable artists into believing that superstardom is just one "America Votes" victory away. As the film makes clear, all the talent and/or exposure in the world doesn't guarantee you a successful solo career; too many other vagaries come into play, from record label politics to the taste of the consumers. All of the women profiled in 20 Feet have taken their shot at moving into the spotlight (with Hill still in the process of doing so) and speak to how draining and ego-deflating a transition it can be. Backup singing, in contrast, is a steadier gig, one that allows them to still be part of the industry they love and receive respect from their fellow musicians, even if the public doesn't necessarily know their name. It's a pointed reminder that there are other fulfilling career paths in music that don't involve heading up your own band.

Not surprisingly, 20 Feet is also packed to the brim with great music, from Love's Spector tunes to classic Stones tracks and beyond. However, much like the film itself, I couldn't help but feel that the soundtrack is a little too overstuffed. The movie runs a slender 90 minutes and Neville tries to pack an awful lot of material into that time frame, to the point where 20 Feet becomes too much of a general survey rather than an insightful character portrait. Perhaps limiting the movie's focus to only two or three singers (like, say, Love and Hill, who represent two different generations of backup artists) would have provided Neville with a more rigorous structure. As it is, in trying to highlight as many backup artists as it can, 20 Feet from Stardom inevitably ends up relegating some of them back into the background.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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