Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (2014)
With its conventional, broad approach and its light, parochial subject matter, it’s little surprise that Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom beat Joshua Oppenheimer’s far superior The Act of Killing to the Oscar for Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards. After all, the white middle-class old men at the Academy love themselves a simple, unchallenging underdog story, which is no more and no less than what 20 Feet from Stardom offers.
Uncontroversial and somewhat restrained, Morgan Neville’s chronological look at the lives of American backup singers since the advent of rock ‘n’ roll is a pretty bog-standard and narrowly-focussed film, albeit one that is enjoyable, well directed and reasonably enlightening. Beginning with an assertion from rock legend Bruce Springsteen that the leap from backup singer to the “stardom” referenced in the film’s title requires much more than just a powerful voice, the film explores what it is that holds such singers back from greatness. In Springsteen’s experienced view, the leap to fame requires – for lack of a better, non-appropriated term – a certain “X Factor”; namely, a combination of looks, confidence and narcissism on behalf of the singer that sets them apart from the crowd.
It is from this angle that Neville springs into his passionate defence of the importance of backup singers to American pop, rock, soul and even cinema over the past 50 years. The film is split into two main sections; it starts with an analysis of how the role of backup singers has evolved over the years, with contributions from legends such as Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and Mick Jagger on their experiences with different talents, before narrowing in on three of the most well-known backup vocalists of recent times – Darlene Love, Judith Hill and Merry Clayton. Neville’s film explores the chronic lack of recognition that such vocalists receive – despite how essential their voices are to any given performance – the apparent “sisterhood” within certain backup cliques and how difficult it can be for singers to confidently mesh their styles with the song they’re supporting on.
There is a real insightful depth to the film’s first act, in which we’re given a ton of information about the manner in which the role of the backup singer has evolved and, in some respects, become much more central to a performance than it once was. Neville takes us on a tour through history, starting with the days when Darlene Love and Fanita James (two members of sixties girl-group The Blossoms) were the first black backup singers in the studios and examines how they helped to change what it meant to “assist” a performance, before moving on to the sacrifices that these performers were / are forced to make in order to keep working. The film examines the idea that while some backup singers attempt to use their roles as a springboard to launch themselves into stardom, other are content to remain in the background and avoid the “drama” that accompanies fame and wealth, which goes back to what Springsteen was alluding to; that it takes much more than a voice to make it big in this industry.
However, after a while the film starts to feel a bit aimless. Even at just 90 minutes, there were times when it barely maintained my attention because its analysis of certain issues – such as the sacrifices backup singers have to make, the price of fame, the sexualisation of modern performers and the general ruthlessness of the music business – felt so lightweight and unfocussed. Though the personal focus on Love, Hill and Clayton helps grant the film a level of additional authenticity, it also means that the most interesting elements fall by the wayside somewhat. After a powerful start the film descends, perhaps by virtue of its desire to sell these women to us and grant them the recognition that Neville thinks they deserve, into a rather cumbersome, ambling biography.
Nonetheless, there’s just enough going on to ensure that the audience remains entertained and educated. The talking heads are all surprisingly candid, particularly when questioned on their feelings about certain aspects of the industry, and Neville takes the brave but ultimately vindicated decision to interfere in the proceedings as little as possible. It’s sometimes easy to forget he’s even there as these women speak about their experiences and ambitions. The soundtrack which accompanies the film is fantastic, and some of its most powerful moments come from simple vocal performances rather than from pondering pseudo-philosophy on the merits and/or perils of celebrity. It’s a shame, therefore, that so much of the final act feels so promotional and glitzy in its portrayal of these performers, rather than honest, informative and occasionally gritty as the first act was.
In conclusion, I still contend that The Act of Killing was robbed, though that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy 20 Feet from Stardom. I don’t think it’s anything special but, as an engaging look at a group of performers we all take for granted, it does what it needs to do and it does it well which, at the end of the day, is all one can really ask for.