Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: 20 Feet from Stardom

Release date: June 14, 2013 (June 28, 2013 in the DC market)
Running time: 90 minutes
Starring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Mick Jagger
Who to see it with: Music lovers


Backup singers often receive little credit for their hard work. 20 Feet from Stardom gives them the spotlight and explores the crucial, challenging roles that good backup singers have played in many classic songs. We mostly hear from older, female singers who've been in the business for decades, some who've been performing since the 1950's and 60's. This naturally leads to some discussion of the music industry's racism and sexism, but 20 Feet cares more about the feelings that arise when someone is perpetually uncredited and placed in the background, and the challenges faced by even the greatest backup singers when attempting to become a lead. Its stories are often frustrating and heartbreaking, including tales of hearing themselves on the radio as other artists are credited, or watching their solo albums fail despite seeming destined for success. This makes it more satisfying, and sometimes disappointing, to hear about the success (or lack thereof) some found after many unfulfilling years.

20 Feet is also insightful and funny, its lively stars often joyfully reminiscing about their complicated pasts rather than lamenting them. Darlene Love's story feels the most complete, detailing how she began performing as a teen to her troubles with producer Phil Spector to her eventual rise as a lead singer. The makers could have dug a little deeper into the reasons why the others have such difficulty developing their careers (or, in one case, why a singer might willingly choose to remain backup), but their stories provide illuminating, if brief, glimpses into the setbacks faced by singers who don't have mainstream, pop star-like images. Many of the names and faces will be unfamiliar, but you've probably heard them unknowingly. For some viewers, this film will associate those voices with actual, accomplished performers, particularly a scene where Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger discuss Clayton's soulful contribution to Rolling Stones song Gimme Shelter. 20 Feet from Stardom is an interesting look at the many trials and occasional triumphs experienced by performers who receive far too little recognition.

See it.

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