The Movie Waffler Documentary Review - <i>20 Feet from Stardom</i> | The Movie Waffler

Documentary Review - 20 Feet from Stardom

A look at the world of backing singers.
Directed by: Morgan Neville
Featuring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Patti Austin, Sheryl Crow, Judith Hill

This year's recipient of the Best Documentary Oscar, 20 Feet from Stardom sets out to shine a light on those unsung heroes of popular music; the backing singers. Morgan Neville's film focuses on a handful of the more respected vocalists, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear, who were all at the peak of their profession during the seventies. Contemporary backing singers like Judith Hill (who was set to explode on the scene as Michael Jackson's female lead before his untimely death) are also featured, along with lead artists like Sting, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder, who give their varying takes on what backing singers contribute to their music.
Documentary fans were shocked a couple of weeks back when Joshua Oppenheimer's highly acclaimed The Act of Killing was passed over by Oscar voters in favor of Morgan Neville's music doc. Throughout its history, the Academy has become something of a laughing stock among movie lovers for rewarding a series of insipid, inoffensive and uninspiring films. 20 Feet from Stardom is as bland as they come and makes Oppenheimer's snub one of the most baffling of recent times. In this case, the Academy has opted for first world problems over second world nightmares.
Neville's doc fails as an examination of its subject, preferring to create false drama where none really exists. 20 Feet is less about what it means to be a backing singer, more about what it means to not be a headlining artist. It's akin to making a documentary about the craft of acting, only to ask why none of its subjects are directors. 
You might learn some new names, though if you have an interest in soul music they'll be very familiar, but you won't gain much of an insight into the role played by these women. Like a disapproving spouse, Neville is more interested in focusing on how his subjects haven't eked out headlining careers of their own and employs a patronizing tone that dismisses the art of backing vocalists, or "oohing and aahing" as Jagger condescendingly dismisses it.
The film's approach is reductive in a manner that will alienate music fans who know the reality behind these stories. Merry Clayton, for example, is made to look like a failure, while in reality she had a string of solo R&B hits and could have retired on the royalties from her contribution (the song 'Yes') to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack album alone. 
Neville seems to equate working as a backing vocalist with being employed in a coal mine in terms of its social standing, and the result is a movie filled with rich people manipulated into moaning about their lot in life. When Neville has his subjects perform, it's usually singing lead. These performances are certainly moving, but they negate the thesis of the doc. We know these women are talented enough to be lead vocalists, but we never learn what it is that makes them such good backing singers. It's indicative of the "everyone deserves a medal" culture that pervades western society. Only Sting provides a counterpoint, explaining that life is tough and not everyone gets to achieve their dreams. When Sting is the most sensible talking head in your film, you've really got problems.

Eric Hillis