Darlene Love. Merry Clayton. Lisa Fischer. Claudia Lennear. Táta Vega. Judith Hill. Jo Lawry. Stevvi Alexander.
The names of these women may not seem familiar, but I can guarantee that you have heard at least one, if not all of them sing. How?
Because all of these women are backup singers, and among the most celebrated of all time. They have performed with artists as iconic as Ray Charles and Michael Jackson. They’ve seen it all and they’re immensely talented. But all while standing in the background – they are 20 Feet from Stardom.
In this incredible documentary, director Morgan Neville has created a fond portrait of these unsung (pun intended) heroes, who’ve sung on just about everything from ‘Thriller’ to the opening notes of ‘Circle of Life’ in The Lion King. He interviews artists such as Sting, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder among others to celebrate the talents that don’t get noticed quite as often.
We’re introduced to each of these incredible women, who reminisce on their lives spent in the business – their legendary stories, their regrets, and their absolute love for music. And of course, there’s some killer sing-alongs thrown in for good measure. Some of the film’s many highlights include Merry Clayton’s recount of recording the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ at midnight while immensely pregnant, Judith Hill’s loving memories of rehearsing with Michael Jackson before his death, and Claudia Lennear’s regrets about leaving music behind.
While 20 Feet from Stardom is ultimately a film about the utter joy musicians find in their craft, there’s a sense of melancholy that often pervades the screen. We learn that most of the featured singers attempted – or is currently attempting – a solo career, but each were met with only lukewarm success. Each of the singers has varying levels of regret about their career in the background, but it’s a sad realisation that talent alone cannot make a star. The distance from singing backup to standing in the spotlight is much greater than twenty feet, they may as well exist on different planets.
Music fans and documentary fans alike, everyone will find something to enjoy in this stellar film. I can’t sing its praises enough (I’ll stop with the puns now), and here’s hoping it receives some awards attention come Oscar season.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Currently screening in select cinemas nationwide.