News Column

Movie Review: 'Twenty Feet from Stardom,' -- 3 stars

June 13, 2013


June 13--Twenty Feet from Stardom

Backup singing is among the purest forms of musical expression. With the focus on the headliner and all the extraneous requirements that come with fame and fortune just out of reach, these supporting performers are free to shape and perfect their craft without distractions.

That's a notion espoused on camera in "Twenty Feet from Stardom" and sold quite effectively by Morgan Neville's documentary, which profiles the careers of some of the most successful and prolific backup singers. Neville's subjects range from Darlene Love to Merry Clayton, performers on hits ranging from "Da Doo Ron Ron" to "Gimme Shelter," and recent "Voice" contestant Judith Hill, who was to have toured with Michael Jackson on "This Is It."

The film is an historical document that engagingly traces six decades of musical history from unique perspectives, filled with snippets of some of the greatest songs and stories of working with Ray Charles, Phil Spector and Tina Turner, among many others. It's a tribute to the art of backup, exploring the challenges of molding your voice to fit a group and seamlessly transitioning between different styles of singing.

Above all, the movie works thanks to its doggedly personal focus. Neville gives his subjects a rare chance to shape their own narratives, supplemented by reverential testimony from Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and other luminaries.

There are a few too many stories to be told for one 90-minute movie, so the filmmaker rushes at times. "Twenty Feet from Stardom" could easily be twice as long and it probably should have been, if it were at all feasible to release a three-hour documentary in theaters (it's not).

Of course, none of that really matters. Love, Clayton and the other singers featured are not just supporting acts; several of them have had successful solo careers. But here, they're truly in the spotlight, given the full-scale star treatment. And it's about time.


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