Reviews

Morgan Neville

USA, 2013

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 20 May 2013

Source digital projection

Categories The 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston

The clever opening credits sequence for director Morgan Neville’s documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom succinctly states the film’s intentions by reimagining album covers so they only feature their backup singers. The sequence is aptly soundtracked by Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” with its self-conscious, swelling chorus of African American women singing, “doo doo doo.” Neville’s film focuses on pop music’s backup singers, the often-anonymous talents who have defined some of the most beloved songs of the past fifty years.

The many veteran backup singers interviewed share showbiz stories of both triumph and frustration, told from the perspective of those who know what it means to hold the spotlight, as well as to stand just outside of it. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love, for example, recounts the bitter experience of contributing lead vocals to a #1 single in the sixties — the teen pop perennial “He’s a Rebel” — and not receiving credit for it. Twenty Feet From Stardom is largely about awarding these singers some of the credit that they’ve so often missed out on, and that undertaking is both noble and entertaining. One of the greatest pleasures of the film is the opportunity to finally match faces and stories to familiar voices.

The interviewees offer a variety of meditations on the meaning of fame, and it’s interesting that many of them have ultimately decided that they aren’t looking for superstar-level recognition, though others, including twentysomething Judith Hill, are still seeking a chance to break out. Neville could perhaps have delved into some of the issues of race and gender a bit more as the singers contemplate why certain breaks didn’t or haven’t come — there are a disproportionate number of black women anonymously lending white male singers a richer sound — but Twenty Feet From Stardom is more about celebration than social critique.

And it does do a fantastic job of highlighting underappreciated talents, perhaps never more so than during a sequence that traces the history of Merry Clayton’s brilliant guest vocal on The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” Framed by interviews with Clayton and Mick Jagger, the segment culminates with an airing of Clayton’s isolated vocal from the song, in all of its raw power. The audience at my screening was so moved by Clayton’s vocal that they burst into spontaneous applause. Other musical moments in the film, including a climactic performance of “Lean on Me” with Love on lead vocals, are also quite stirring, and Twenty Feet from Stardom is undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser. At its best, it approximates the rush of a seeing a great musical performance live, and not all rock docs can manage that feat.

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