Director: Morgan Neville
Starring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder
Running Time: 91 mins
Release date: 28th March 2014
You cannot talk about Twenty Feet From Stardom without mentioning the Oscars, as this documentary about backing singers surprised everyone by walking off with the little golden statue. A feat made even more shocking as it beat the extraordinary and unique The Act of Killing. So this must be incredibly special to win over the death squad movie. While Twenty Feet is entertaining, it is fairly bland and unremarkable.
Taking a handful of backing singers (most now well in their prime) this tells of how these hidden voices are the real stars of some legendary records. Their stories of wanting fame but never quite making it to those who didn’t want it in the first place, are funny, interesting and sometimes touching.
Among them all is the legendary Darlene Love, a woman who changed the face of backing singers, first moving away from the comforts of white, middle-class girls to the church-fueled soulful voices who added their talents to Phil Spector’s wall of sound. While bringing a huge amount of success to Spector, Love was never going to be anything else but a backing singer, even though she had the personality and passion of a lead.
Along the way, we meet a variety of other backing singers, some who were and still are, desperate for stardom to come their way, others, like the hugely talented Lisa Fischer, with her incredible jazz vocals, who were on the verge of making it but now stands in queues in the post office like everyone else. It’s these humbling moments that you realise that, even through hard work and determination, you are still a face in the crowd. A bold lesson to those who think that success can be fast-tracked from appearing on TV talent shows.
Director Morgan Neville has ticked all the boxes and crossed all the T’s with this interesting film, giving it plenty of polish from the cinematography, collecting just the right amount of vox pox talking heads, both from the celebrity machine, those who have made it, to backing singers and industry people. Some of the story are genuinely touching, others insightful and a fascinating peek into a world that many don’t know about. There’s also plenty of achieve sequences and performances of note, particularly one involving a very thin David Bowie singing Young Americans with a large Luther Vandross as his backing singer.
It’s all played out quite safely, with very little to upset or offend and this is where the film really suffers. Neville obviously loves his subject and the women who he’s trying to show but it doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t tell us anything that we may or may not know already. These backing singers, for whatever reason they choose, are just that. They have amazing voices, they can pick up harmonies in the blink of an eye and they can make the star sound incredible but they may never step into the limelight because they are good at what they do.
You could show this film on any Friday night on BBC Four and no one would know the difference between this and any other rock documentary. Perfectly fine while it’s on but not that memorable. Unlike other documentaries recently, this is just…okay and I find it hard to believe that it’s an Oscar winner. Sure, the Academy may not want to show their support to the Indonesian Death Squads, as portrayed in The Act Of Killing but as far as brave, innovative film making is concerned, it is second to none. Not like this, which just comes across as rather drag and creatively unexciting. Not a terrible film by a long shot and if you like music, you will enjoy this. Just not that exciting.