Opening to widespread critical acclaim, Morgan Neville’s enchanting music documentary 20 Feet From Stardom celebrates the immensely talented yet largely unknown backup singers who lent their voices, spirit, and moxy to some of the biggest hits in pop music history. Its subjects are captivating figures, most of whom are women of color, and all of whom are eminently beguiling. (There are men too, of course: we learn that one of Luther Vandross’ first big tours was doing backup vocals for David Bowie.) There are also gracious interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting and others who not only attest to their backup singers’ gifts and craftsmanship, but also celebrate them as worthy colleagues. The film is a significant corrective, forceful enough to be more than a footnote in the history of an industry built largely on the exploitation of its artists. If the movie has a single villain (besides Phil Spector), it’s show business itself, and the zero-sum decisionmaking that sidelines virtuosos whose dreams far exceed the opportunities they’ve been given.
20 Feet is a well-crafted film, entertaining and engaging while also rendered in a playful, imaginative, often surprising visual style. It would probably make a good Christmas gift on DVD. Humming along with a vibrant, feel-good nostalgia, the movie is a surefire crowd-pleaser for viewers who grew up loving the music. At my screening this past weekend at Film Society of Lincoln Center, one of the singers from the film dropped by for a Q&A and the audience was rapturous, gushing with spontaneous praise and gratitude.
But while the documentary is successful at shining a light on unheralded backup singers of the past, it is far less illuminating about their shifting position in music’s future — or really, its present. The biggest drawback of 20 Feet From Stardom is that it eulogizes a bygone era that’s increasingly disconnected from how the music business operates today.
The film attempts to bridge that gap by weaving in the story of Judith Hill, a young, ambitious singer-songwriter who sees backup vocals as both a career springboard and a professional liability. “It can easily become quicksand,” she tells us, “if that’s not what you want to do.” This premonition is echoed in some of the singers’ stories, and borne out by their myriad unsuccessful solo careers.
In 2009, Michael Jackson selected Hill as his duet partner for This Is It, a series of fifty sold-out concerts in London that were cancelled when Jackson died three weeks before the opening. Devastated by the loss, and denied her big career break, Hill resorts to doing backup vocals for Kylie Minogue — a gig apparently so shameful that she has to perform incognito wearing a wig, though her fans recognize her anyway.
What the film doesn’t know is that after production wrapped on 20 Feet From Stardom, Judith Hill would go on to compete in the fourth season of NBC’s The Voice (the season finale was last night). Hill made it to the top 8 before being cut in a surprise elimination.
The irony is that 20 Feet is flatly dismissive of reality singing competitions like The Voice, as well as auto-tuning and the rest of the modern industrial apparatus for star-making. That’s because the documentary holds an anachronistic notion of what “stardom” means in the first place, still quantifying success in terms of record deals and multi-platinum albums. The film shines when exhuming and rectifying past injustices within their historical context (most notably, the 1960s case of Phil Spector misattributing Darlene Love’s vocals to The Crystals), but is far less successful when speculating where the artists might go from here.