20 Feet from Stardom

Movie Information

The Story: Documentary on the world of backup singers. The Lowdown: Charming, tuneful, occasionally moving and always entertaining about the singers who contributed so much to so many great songs.
Genre: Music Documentary
Director: Morgan Neville (Johnny Cash's America)
Starring: Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler
Rated: PG-13

Morgan Neville’s look at the world of backup singers is not the deepest documentary you’re likely to come across this year — in fact, it’s not deep at all — but it may well be the most enjoyable one. It probably isn’t Neville’s fault that the film isn’t any more in depth than it is (though he may never have intended it to be). More likely, the film’s tone was dictated by that of the featured singers — Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love and Tata Vega. If you’re hoping they’re seething with resentment or wanting to dish the dirt on the stars they’ve performed with, this isn’t your movie. Oh, there’s a trace of bitterness here and there — especially when it comes to the way Phil Spector had a tendency to credit whomever he was promoting rather than who was actually singing — but resentment is not in their makeup. It’s as if complaining would be a waste of energy that might be better spent singing.

Talking about their experiences is another matter. Some of the anecdotes are tinged with a little regret, but more typical is Claudia Linnear — shown performing backup on “Wah-Wah.” She talks about how special it was to be a part of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. If she harbors any ill will against Harrison or Eric Clapton or Ringo or Leon Russell for being the stars, you’d never know it. Of course, she might just have too much class to kvetch, but she sounds genuine.

Some of the sequences are very telling. The most extensive coverage is probably given to Merry Clayton recording the famous “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away” for the Rolling Stones on “Gimme Shelter.” (Lisa Fischer now tours with the Stones and performs this part.) The film never quite answers why these women — with the exception of Darlene Love — never had the careers or the credit they ought to have had. Probably it’s unanswerable, but it’s nonetheless a treat — and a kind of validation — to see and hear them here. The decision to end the film with Darlene Love singing Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” was a masterstroke that imbues the proceedings with an emotional resonance unlike anything in the movie. Rated PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material.

Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “20 Feet from Stardom

  1. dpewen

    Excellent flick! As more of a music lover than movie lover I enjoy movies/documentaries about musicians and singers. However, it was a bit long.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I feel that way about all documentaries, but it’s actually only 90 minutes.

  3. Me

    A bunch of what looks like good music documentaries coming out this year. Earlier this year there was Beware of Mr Baker, Sound City, and that Pussy Riot doc on HBO, and now there is the Big Star and Death documentaries out now.

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