20 Feet from Stardom
A soul-stirring celebration of backing vocalists from director Morgan Neville
Lapped up by festival audiences worldwide and winner of the Best Documentary award at the 2014 Oscars, Morgan Neville’s soul-stirring celebration of backing vocalists is a bona fide crowd-pleaser with substance to match. Neville captures the goosebump-inducing joy of a group of beautiful voices in harmony, and by putting faces to the voices behind some of the 20th century’s most memorable rock hits (The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ being the shining example), he uncovers some great characters and stories. But added to this, the film presents a fascinating array of perspectives on what success means, and should mean, for someone whose main instrument is their voice.
20 Feet from Stardom’s winning appeal comes largely from Neville’s ‘show don’t tell’ approach. The film presents the stories of a handful of the most prominent backing vocalists in mainstream music – Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Merry Clayton chief among them – but rather than just speaking to these singers Neville structures the film around several newly-recorded reunion sessions. The effect of hearing these voices is immediately moving, and gives viewers a powerful reason to want to know more, and hear more. Along with well-chosen archive footage of classic performances, it makes for a powerful and hugely enjoyable experience.
Neville also packs the film with great insights from big-name artists: Bruce Springsteen identifies the way that rock and roll secularized the Church’s call and response tradition, and has a great line about Luther Vandross ‘sweating like a pig; singing like an angel’. Meanwhile, Sting offers an appreciation of the spiritual necessity of backing singers, while Mick Jagger seems to only grudgingly accept the importance of their contribution. This is a film that exults in the power of song and wonderfully celebrates individuals who live to sing.
General release from Fri 28 Mar.