- Katie Behrman
20 Feet From Stardom is one of five movies featured in the 2014 Oscars as nominees for Best Documentary. Katie Behrman reviews the movie, just in time for the ceremony.
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“I never expected that the film would change the women’s lives or add a new chapter to their lives,” expresses Morgan Neville, director of the beautifully moving documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Exploring a previously untouched world of singers, the documentary poignantly relays the captivating tales of back-up singers’ careers. The film effortlessly moves through these singers’ stories of success, disappointment, and resilience. “It’s the first word on back-up singing—certainly not the last,” explains Neville.
Fascinated by the back-up singers he saw at a concert (“while stoned,” laughs Neville), Gil Frieson, one of the film’s producers, instantly approached Neville with the idea to make a documentary about these singers. “It was very much a journalistic enterprise,” Neville describes about the process of making the film, “There weren’t any books or anything on back-up singers. Only thing we could do was to meet them.” Neville and his team spent the next three months interviewing around fifty back-up singers and hearing their fascinating life stories. “Our biggest job was taking material out—some characters were so great, but they just didn’t belong in the film,” expresses Neville with a slight shake of his head, “I needed a group of singers whose stories could build on and echo one another’s. I needed them to come from slightly different generations, so that you could get a bridge of history. It was hard to find those six characters.”
Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tàta Vega, and Jo Lawry made the cut for the featured characters. Together, their stories construct a moving narrative about the revolution in back-up singing by African American women. “I didn’t want to do the same story over again,” says Neville as he leans back in his chair, “ya know—sex, drugs, and getting screwed over by record labels. Everyone has the same story. These women have that story. It’s just not unique.”
Often juxtaposing successful moments with bleak portraits of their continual struggle, the film artfully weaves together these women’s lives in order to produce an original story. In a particularly poignant transition, the film shows the mesmerizing Lisa Fischer singing on stage, only to flash to her standing in line at FedEx, waiting to send a package, and wearing a pair of sweatpants.
Lisa Fischer’s voice transcends beautifully. Through the continued footage of her hitting crystalline notes, the film demonstrates that she has the voice of a star. However, Lisa constantly states that she never desired to be famous. “I just want to sing. Being in a special place with people—that’s the higher calling to me,” she declares genuinely.
Indeed, one of the most successful aspects of the film is its deliverance of raw emotion. The back-up singers never give off the “camera ready” air, as do some of the film’s well-known stars, such as Mick Jagger, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen. The film also refuses to engage in filming techniques that make the singers’ words come off as more emotional. Not once does the film zoom in on the women’s lips or just their eyes, hoping to heighten the impact of their words. The singers’ candidness contains a touching effect on its own, without any further theatrical embellishment. To see Merry Clayton say, while sitting in a chair, eyes gazing down, that she felt like if she just gave her heart to what she was doing, that she would automatically become a star, is utterly heart-wrenching. And then, just a few minutes later, to hear Tàta Vega reflect back on her failure to go solo, slowly stating, “If I had made it, I probably wouldn’t be sitting in this chair, ‘cause I would’ve OD’d somewhere,” contains a tug all on its own.
20 Feet From Stardom’s sincere nature produces a universal message for the film. “The most amazing thing,” Neville remembers, “is that none of these singers were bitter or broken about not being able to go solo. The third act of the film addresses the question of how do you live your life when you didn’t succeed in your dreams. You still have pride.” At the Sundance Festival premier, twelve hundred people leapt to their feet, giving the documentary five standing ovations in response to this message, while at an opening in Minneapolis, a man delicately put his reaction into words. Neville recalls of the moment, “He said, ‘I’m happy with my job in Microsoft. I’m a back-up singer, we are all back-up singers,’” a soft smile appeared on Neville’s face, “Everyone applauded. Because, it’s true. I’m one, too.”