I've always found music to be sort of difficult to talk about. I have no skill for identifying particular instruments, no grasp of the language that creates such exquisite sounds. But I do get lost in the heady, melodic blend of instruments and voices, and am just happy to be enveloped in it. Thankfully, the Sundance-selected music documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom discusses that sweet spot and the people who spend their lives in service to it with such inclusiveness and accessibility that even a rube like me can follow along.
Though the film includes interviews with Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler (to name a few), its story is all about the backup singers, the ones whose voices you've heard and hummed along to countless times, yet whose names you never knew. In an ambitious endeavor director Morgan Neville and producer Gil Friesen (an established music industry veteran) collected fifty-some interviews from singers past and present, famous and virtually unknown, from the worlds of Motown, rock, pop, country, and R&B, all in an effort to explore what it means to be a backup singer. The results are alternatively inspiring and harrowing, because—as Sting lays out—fame is not dependent on talent alone.
Neville navigates through the popular music scene of the 1960s onward from these singers' perspectives, and in doing so reveals how background singers were influential in the evolution of music. Or more specifically, how the voices of women who skirt fame inspired artists like The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, and many, many more. But within this overarching history, Neville presents the individual stories of several incredible women who—for better or worse—followed their dreams from church choirs to recording studios and stage spotlights.
He manages to present just about every narrative variant you could hope to see. There's the brassy belter Darlene Love, who broke out of the background only to be forced to take up survival job as a maid before making her grand return. There are background singers who aspired to solo success and either couldn't make it work for them like Tata Vega, or chose to return to the warm embrace of the background blend like Grammy winner Lisa Fischer. Finally, there's the still developing story of Judith Hill, an aspiring artist who is currently trying to make her way from background singer to headliner.
Their stories are respectfully told, with Neville thoughtfully giving us enough time with each of these charismatic songstresses to feel invested in journeys that sometimes traverse decades. My heart broke as Love shudders with rage remembering the deception of an immoral music producer who stole her work and hindered her fame, and then swelled with joy as Fischer and others shared their passion for their chosen craft. Much like the songs its stars have sung on, Twenty Feet From Stardom is vibrant with emotion and passion, which pulls it through some of its less spectacular moments, like some confusing graphics and a meandering conclusion that struggles to wrap up a dialogue that feels unfinished.
Overall, Twenty Feet From Stardom is a gem that captures both the thrill and devastation that comprises working in the entertainment industry. Neville presents an amazing array of women who not only bravely pursued their dreams, but also changed the face of modern music as they did it. Their stories are captivating and inspiring. Their music is unforgettable. And in the end, this documentary full of heart and sass feels like the recognition they—and others like them—so richly deserve.