20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

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IMDb Rating
7.4 out of 10 (view IMDb page)

Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we've had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

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MPAA Rating:
PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material
91 Minutes
Morgan Neville

Weekly Volcano's Review

Jared Lovrak on July 31st, 2013

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I've been to exactly three concerts in my lifetime, and while my reasons for attending varied with each one, I can say with absolute certainty that it was never because of the backup singers.  I suppose there may be some subset of music fandom that spends their hard-earned money on concert tickets solely due to some incredible backing vocals, but I have yet to meet any of those fans.  Backup singers by their very nature usually don't get to share the limelight with the artists that they, well, back.  Yet many popular songs wouldn't sound nearly as good if not for backup singers.  Imagine if "Walk on the Wild Side" cut to 15 odd seconds of dead air periodically in lieu of its signature "Doo do doo do doo do do doo ..."

It's only appropriate that "20 Feet from Stardom", the latest offering from prolific documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville, opens with that perennial Lou Reed classic.  This engaging documentary chronicles the lives of several generations of backup singers and the role backing vocals played in the popular music scene over the past 50 years.  Due to the hefty span of time the film covers, as well as its large cast, the film provides a compelling look at the vast array of paths the career of a backup singer can take.

Darlene Love is perhaps the most well-known backing vocalist featured in the film.  From her humble beginnings as a backup singer in the early 1960s, to her successful break into the mainstream music, film and television scene in the 1980s and finally to her 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Love's career spans the longest of all the singers in the film and showcases the life of an artist whose hard work and devotion to their craft, coupled with no small amount of luck, helped them to finally "make it".

Juxtaposed with Love is Judith Hill, an undeniably talented and extremely dedicated young woman who television audiences unfortunately saw eliminated from The Voice only a few months ago.  Hill's career spans only a fraction of the time that Love's does, but her story thus far shares more than a few parallels to Love's modest beginnings half a century ago.  While she has yet to cement her place in the mainstream, it's obvious that there are big things on the horizon.  That her face graces the poster for this very film is evidence enough of that.

Then there are the "Has-Beens", "Might've Beens" and "Never Gonna' Happens"  that always plague this kind of career field.  Their stories aren't very inspiring, but they do reveal some of the many ways a singer's career can be derailed.

Interviews with famous artists such as Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Sheryl Crow, (a former backup singer herself), all of whom freely admit how reliant an artist is on the strength of their backup singers, round out this insightful documentary and make 20 Feet from Stardom a must-see.

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