20 Feet From Stardom

20 feet from stardomI will admit that I do not know a lot about popular music, or its history.  Perhaps too much of my pop culture interest has been in film.  I make no excuses for that, especially since film has been called the culmination of all the arts.  To that end, what little I do know about popular music has come from watching movies, documentaries in particular.

Going into director Morgan Neville’s terrific new documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” I was expecting a puff piece, an easy-going documentary about back-up singers.  Back-up singers are those singers who sing, true to their title, in the backs of bands, or off to one side, while the lead singer performs upfront.  What I received instead, from “20 Feet From Stardom,” was a very profound and moving portrait of these singers (almost all women).  The  film examines what their lives and careers have been like and, perhaps most important, what their dreams were, and how these dreams, in certain cases, have changed.  Some of these talented performers wanted to remain back-up singers while others desired to take the main stage.  As Bruce Springstein explains, early on in the film, describing the move from back-up singer to main singer, “It’s a bit of a walk.  That walk to the front is complicated.  It’s a conceptual leap.”

The subjects of “20 Feet From Stardon” are back-up singers who have performed with Springstein, Mick Jagger, Sting, David Bowie, Blondie, Steeley Dan, Stevie Wonder, Sting and others.   Their names include Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Darlene Love, Cindy Mizelle, Merry Clayton, Gloria Jones, Jo Lawry, Claudia Lennear and probably a few names I did not get as I was writing furiously throughout the film trying to learn as much as I could.   Their stories are told through interviews that are nicely inter-cut with very generous and creative uses of vintage performance footage.

There is a real energy to this film due in no small part to the editing skills of Douglas Blush, Kevin Klauber and Jason Zeldes.  The film’s structure shows how the past informs the present and vice versa.  The result is a real celebration of talent, but talent that was not always given its due.  It is really moving to watch Darlene Love listening to a track she recorded long ago and then have her explain that,  “I recorded that track when I was 18.  I’m now 70.”  At one point Love was reduced to cleaning houses.  It was while she was cleaning someone’s bathroom that one of her songs came on the radio.  She realized that singing was her purpose in life and she returned to a business that did not always give her the credit she deserved.

There are many other stories contained in “20 Feet From Stardom.”  They are stories that I think anyone can relate to regardless of their background.   I certainly did.  As I have often said in this blog, and which I find to be truer and truer, is that a good documentary should be able to take a subject about which I know little and make it interesting and compelling.  “20 Feet From Stardom” certainly accomplishes this

“20 Feet From Stardom” is playing locally at Angelika Film Center, 18 West Houston Street.

20 Feet From Stardom, Director Morgan Neville, 2013,

The Weinstein Company, 89 minutes, rated PG-13


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on July 20, 2013, in Documentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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