20 Feet From Stardom – Review

20 Feet From Stardom looks at the work and lives of ‘backing’ singers gives fascinating glimpse into an under-appreciated profession in entertainment.

The thrust of the documentary is interviews with very likable and exceptionally talented singers; those singers in matching outfits, bringing a song to life and standing just outside of the spotlight. The filmmakers also speak to musical superstars including Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting and Bruce Springsteen. These conversations are intercut with visually-stunning scenic shots and legendary performances of the singers supporting musical powerhouses through the eras.  Some will make you want to sing along and others will just give you goosebumps.

Spanning the genres of motown, soul, R&B and English rock ‘n’ roll from 1960s-90s; the film charts the highs and lows of playing such a crucial role in the recording industry. The filmmakers’ examination begins in the murky early days of studio recording and producers’ practices when holding backing singers under contract. While the modern manufacturing of pop may seem superficial, these retellings make you appreciate that there are areas of the music industry that have always been fickle and, ultimately, about making money.

Do these artists want to stay in the background or do they crave the spotlight? Judith Hill, who sang with Michael Jackson remarks:

“When you’re a background singer, there’s a springboard at the beginning, but it can easily become quicksand if that’s not what you want to do”.

We see some of the subjects struggle to launch solo careers and there are also a couple of surprises of famous singers who successfully made the transition. And then there are those, like Lisa Fischer, who is genuinely happy to tour the world with the Rolling Stones without the demands of being an internationally-recognised performer. When talent is unmistakable, these different attitudes make you think about what makes a star: is it personality, luck, ego or ‘kill spirit’?

The women (and 2 men) featured, almost all discovered ‘their gift’ in church choirs. This background in gospel seems to have equipped them with the ability to harmonise and sing with a group; they provide the soundscape for a record and often the lines that we sing along to at concerts and festivals. They work hard at their craft and their experiences highlight why winners of reality TV competitions are very unlikely to achieve sustained success, graft-free.

If you have an interest in music production and the industry, you’re sure to find this documentary enthralling. Even without, you can appreciate the determination and talent of these artists and the film’s brilliantly eclectic soundtrack. Let us know which song sticks in your head after you leave the cinema.

Reviewed by Lucy Pickering.

20 Feet from Stardom opens in New Zealand cinemas on 28 November 2013