25 February 2014 | MassDistraction
Entertaining if not incredibly insightful or informative
15 minutes into 20 Feet from Stardom you really become excited about the possibilities. You hear familiar songs that are given a new perspective and see the faces that match the voices you fell in love with. But before the film winds down, you have more questions than you did going in. It devolves into little more than a well-produced message from the Music Industry Tourism Board. That's not to say there's no value here. It does provide a look at some significant voices with a top-line glance into their place in the recording industry and their personal journeys. There's enough here to engage you and ample servings of some truly outstanding music (the a cappella take of Merry Clayton's "Gimme Shelter" vocal gives you chills and the recollection of its recording session is one of the film's highlights). But it's narrow focus and limited perspective do leave a lot on the table.
The bulk of the film consists of five stories from the 1960s to the present, including Darlene Love (ghost singer for The Crystals on "He's a Rebel" and a featured performer on the greatest Christmas album of all time, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector), Merry Clayton (the aforementioned backup on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and actress from Cagney & Lacey), Tata Vega (The Color Purple soundtrack and numerous background gigs from the 80s to present), Lisa Fischer (Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross and Tina Turner collaborator and Grammy winning solo artist), and Judith Hill (Performed at Michael Jackson's memorial service and would go on to compete on season 4 of The Voice after the film's completion).
While both Tata Vega and Lisa Fisher seem to lack the resume of classic recordings that Love, Clayton or Claudia Lennear (another subject) have racked up, Judith Hill's inclusion is perhaps the most questionable. She seems to view the role of backup singer unbefitting her, going so far as to wear a wig when performing a backup gig on television so as not to be recognized by her fans. Having not amassed the body of work the other subjects have, she has little to contribute here except as a counterpoint to Lisa Fisher's humble demeanor or as a throw-in to represent the future of the industry. Unfortunately, she seems ill-suited to be a symbol or generational representative, as her scenes fail to accomplish this goal with any impact.
One of the issues I had coming into this movie as a music fan is that I was able to see the potential this kind of documentary had in mining the munificent history of Rock and Roll and Soul music. However, perhaps because of my own musical biases, I found the segments focusing on the music and voices of the 60s and 70s so much richer and more interesting. The film introduces big figures of the time like Phil Spector and Ike Turner but never explores the gory details of what it was like working with such notorious personalities. Indeed, one could have easily have scrapped anything 80s and upward and filled that time talking about the difficulties these women of colour faced from producers, record labels, and even the lead vocalists themselves, during some very turbulent times. Throw in some of the talented ladies from the George Clinton, Sly Stone and James Brown revues, or perhaps even a few of the fellas, and you have yourself a foundation for an insightful film.
The movie also fails to explore what it was like performing on some of the most famous recordings of our time and have little to show for it. Nothing is done to investigate whether these artists were fairly compensated. It was great that they were able to get Mick Jagger to sit down and talk about his backup singers, but it would have been interesting to ask him if he thought they had been properly remunerated for their work. Just a bit of a look into the mechanics of the industry in that regard would help us better understand what being in that occupation was like from a financial standpoint and what kind of life that affords.
At the end of the film's airy 90 minute running time, one does walk away with a new appreciation for the role of the backup singer (for at least the next little while) and perhaps that's all this documentary ever aspired to be. But an Oscar nominee should strive for something greater than that. While being entertaining, the film is hardly insightful and leaves one with the distinct impression of wanting more. Perhaps we can get a miniseries on this one day.