20 Feet from Stardom tells a compelling story while glossing over music industry issues.
The story in Morgan Neville’s 2013 documentary is of the back-up singers who sing aural life into songs, such as pioneers Judith Hill, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer, among others. Consider it this way: Just think of what Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side” would sound like without the “doo doo doos.” Or the Rolling Stones’s “Gimme Shelter” without the “rape, murder” cry. Or even Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” for a more recent example.
Yet, these singers remain 20 feet from the lead singer, the one who gets the most attention. Not all back-up singers seek center stage, but the ones who do face a long walk in getting there. In the end their singing talents will blow you away.
Interviews with these singers reveal their experiences with recording the songs, touring with certain groups, and changing to lives outside the industry and the spotlight. Merry Clayton, for example, describes how she reached for that higher octave in “Gimme Shelter” and blew the Stones away.
Other interviews feature established musicians, such as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Chris Botti, and Bette Midler. Experts round out the mix.
The use of interviews reflects the expected gendered divisions. The women speak from their own experiences. Springsteen and Sting speak as authorities about music itself, with Springsteen explaining the functions of “call and response” within blues and gospel music.
20 Feet from Stardom represents the unfairness of the music industry when it comes to respecting these artists, who get exploited for their talents and get cheated out of pay, credit, and respect. The documentary holds up Phil Spector as part of the problem, but his actions only hint at the deeper institutionalized practices of the industry, which could have been explored a little further in this documentary.