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Movie Review: 20 Feet from Stardom

The way I gauge a fantastic documentary is if it changes my perspective on a particular topic. 20 Feet From Stardom certainly changed not only my views on backup singers but on the music industry as a whole. Of course I always notice backup singers at concerts and sing along with them in the car. However, I never really thought to place a face to the name. For example, many of us can agree that the best part of The Rolling Stones’ hit song “Gimme Shelter” is the huge female voice in the middle of the song. But who was that singing? In this film, you will finally find out.

Directed by Morgan Neville, 20 Feet From Stardom focuses primarily on four women, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill (though other artists are featured throughout the movie as well). All four are African-American backup singers that got their start singing in the church and eventually made their way to Hollywood. Even though each of these women are talented enough to be major stars in their own right, circumstances in life led them to become backup singers for some of music’s most famous artists. Through in-depth interviews and historical footage, we are shown what it really takes to “make it” in the music industry. After all, one of the documentary’s subjects (I won’t say who) goes from “ghosting” on records (singing for other people without any credit for yourself), to cleaning houses, to eventually being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bette Midler! How do you beat that?

20 feet from stardom singers
Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Although this documentary focuses a lot of its attention on backup singers in the 1960s and 1970s, an era before I was even born, that did not stop me from enjoying the heck out of it and learning a lot at the same time! I really enjoyed hearing the background story behind some of music’s most important songs like “Gimme Shelter”.  It was also interesting to hear such artists as The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow (and many more…) talk about their experience with backup singers. Many artists contributed music and interviews to ensure these talented singers know they are appreciated in the industry.

20 Feet From Stardom is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It is not only engaging and entertaining, but it is also a touching way to celebrate the hundreds of men and women that lend their voices to enhance your favorite songs, usually without recognition. Now it is the backup singers’ chance to step into the spotlight and shine.

My Review: A

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