Sunday, January 26, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom

The Oscar-nominated documentary 20 Feet from Stardom is a great idea of showcasing those who spend their entire lives as back-up singers and dancers in the shadow of famous artists that doesn't give audiences as much insight to these women as you might first expect. Primarily concerned with Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Táta Vega, the film also touches on several other artists including The Waters, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill.

Featuring interviews from several back-up singers, producers, artists, and even a few big names (Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, and former back-up singer turned star Sheryl Crow) praising the unknowns that add so much to their acts, director Morgan Neville is definitely worth viewing. But despite such a treasure trove of untapped potential and some terrific performances (both live and shared from a variety of video clips), 20 Feet from Stardom comes off as a very good, but somewhat limited, look at these women and lives of back-up singers over the years.

Despite the fact that all these women have spent years (some several decades) in the same business, 20 Feet from Stardom struggles with finding consistent themes as some still strive to become solo artists while others are quite content 20 feet to the right of stardom. And in a film about showcasing those who don't get the spotlight shown on them, Neville cherry-picks his way making stars of some of the women in the film while including but largely ignoring others (such as Sting back-up singer Jo Lawry who keeps popping up in the film but never with the spotlight on her). I also think the film wastes a golden opportunity not to spend more time with Sheryl Crow who is unique in the film as the only artist to have spent significant time on both sides of the industry first as a back-up singer and later as nine-time Grammy-award winning artist with more than 50 million albums worldwide. Her story could have been used as a bridge, especially given how much time the film spends with the failed solo attempts of other back-up singers.

Of the women Neville does choose to highlight I was most interested in both Fischer and Clayton's connection to the Rolling Stones, most notable as the lead female voice on "Monkey Man" and "Gimme Shelter." Although the film covers the facts of a pregnant Clayton laying down the vocals for "Gimme Shelter" it oddly ignores ignores the miscarriage she suffered afterwards. This is an issue throughout the film as Neville touches on a variety of artists and stories but doesn't dig deep examine the artists, or their lives outside of music, in any real depth.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray include a behind-the-scenes featurette, Q&A with Love, Clayton, Fischer, and Morgan Neville, and commentary from Neville.

[Anchor Bay, DVD $19.98 / Blu-ray $24.99]

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