“So close, yet so far away” is a common turn of phrase in everyday but for some people it means a lot more, so people have their very careers and livelihood hanging on that turn of phrase. “20 Feet From Stardom” is a fascinating and occasionally stunning look at how that twenty feet can take a lifetime to get to, if you ever get there at all.
Triumphant and heartbreaking in equal measure, the film is both a tribute to the unsung voices who brought shape and style to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others. These gifted artists span a range of styles, genres and eras of popular music, but each has a uniquely fascinating and personal story to share of life spent in the shadows of superstardom. Along with rare archival footage and a soundtrack that can’t be matched, this film boasts intimate interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Sting to name just a few. However, these world-famous figures take a backseat to the diverse array of backup singers whose lives and stories take center stage in the film, sometimes for the very first time.
Easily on pace to be the crowd pleasing documentary of the year, “20 Feet From Stardom” takes us into studio to not only show us the real art behind being a complementary singer but also how fragile the dreams of stardom for any singer truly are. Having to choose from a plethora of stories, director Morgan Neville manages to find his four true focuses of the film as he traces the lineage of someone like a Darlene Love and her early struggles in the music business and dealings with the likes of Phil Spector when musicians had no rights, from a Merry Clayton who appeared on some of the more iconic rock and roll tracks of the modern age but could never break out on her own. Or there are singers like Lisa Fischer who is simply happy being an accomplished musician and can move between headlining on a small stage and backing up some of the bigger acts of our time all at the same time and Judith Hill who was adored by the late great King of Pop and may have to embrace the fact the music stardom on her terms just might not happen. From Gospel roots, and learning to adapt their voices to the trends in the business as much as these women’s stories vary, they all really have a common bond in the music and getting themselves heard as best they can. Neville weaves through each ladies story while popular music history is also playing alongside them, he admittedly leaves a couple of eras of music history by the wayside, but that’s OK. It was never meant to be a film about history, facts, genres or eras, but it is about the shared joy in the musical experience that these four women worked towards and still do to this very day.
Sure there’s enough heartbreak, sadness and anger to go around in “20 Feet From Stardom” however it is not that kind of film. It’s about having that song in heart in the face of all the heartbreak, sadness and anger that the quest for musical stardom can bring. A genuinely uplifting and lovely film to watch.
4 out of 5 stars.
“20 Feet From Stardom” opens today at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema here in downtown Toronto. Please check with listings for show times.
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