Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013)

I’m not convinced Twenty Feet from Stardom deserves all of the awards it received (many of them, including the Academy Award, for Best Documentary). Still, it’s a breezy, music-filled movie that will put you on top of the world.

The premise of Twenty Feet from Stardom isn’t really clear. The title refers literally to where backup singers often stand on stage, figuratively to how close they come to being stars themselves. Those most prominent in the film, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Táta Vega, The Waters Family, have all tried solo careers and have not been wildly successful. Still, several stars are introduced as former backup singers themselves (Sheryl Crow, Luther Vandross), which muddies the waters. Plus, drummers and bass players are twenty feet from stardom too.

Morgan Neville clearly wants to focus on female African American singers, and he draws a line in the sand when Darlene Love and The Blossoms started to be preferred over white backup singers in the late 1950’s. The movie suggests that white backup singers have been practically nonexistent since, showing only one, with no interest in her story. Which is fine, but it gives the tilted impression that the film’s subjects are Masters of the Universe. Very little social context is provided, and we’re never sure what difference race makes (other than white singers in the 50’s were “readers” – they needed sheet music – and African Americans figured it out as they went.) At one point, Merry Clayton talks about being reluctant to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama, before her husband convinced her to do it. She was opposed to the Southern pride anthem, but ultimately decided to “sing the hell out of it.” This probably made the song the hit it was, and we’re left puzzled by what she thinks she accomplished.

The music can’t be denied. Just as people tend to think actors simply recite their lines, many probably think backup singing is pretty straightforward. This is where the movie shines, with plenty of rehearsal and performance footage that showcases these extraordinary musicians. The frontliners that speak in tribute (Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger) are uniformly muted and respectful/worshipful of their backup singers. Neville goes a long way toward making his subjects stars. All of this serves to reinforce that these ladies might have it even better than the stars – when their solo careers don’t work out, they are welcomed back into their respective groups with open arms.

The final five minutes choked me up, somewhat by surprise. At an unspecified recording session, Darlene Love sings Lean on Me, supported by several of the other singers from the movie. It’s staged, but who cares – the transcendent power of great music wins. (Streaming on Netflix. Play it loud.)