When it comes to endorsing a film, nothing is quite as effective as having an Oscar behind you, as is the case with Morgan Neville’s latest feature 20 Feet From Stardom, which won the Best Documentary accolade at the most recent Academy Awards. Such a triumph seems entirely fitting for a film that encourages entertainers to step out of the shadows and enter the limelight once and for all.
The film focuses in on the world of backing singers, from the likes of Merry Clayton and Darlene Love, lending their vocal abilities to classic Motown and soul hits of the 60s and 70s, all the way to Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill – generally working with more contemporary artists. With stock footage, candid interview access with the backing singers to those in front, such as Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder, we explore the lives of the entertainers who feature on some of the most renowned, popular songs ever recorded.
There is something so distinctively emotional about this production, as the singers featured, work as a catalyst and a means of exploring so many other themes, with nostalgia prevalent throughout. There is one scene in particular, where Merry Clayton steps foot in the recording studio where she sung the infamous, and harrowing “Rape, murder – it’s just a shot away” lyric on The Rolling Stone’s Gimme Shelter, providing us with a back story and further personality behind such a prominent song. Meanwhile, the personalities of the backing singers help elevate this picture to further depths, as not only is it fascinating, but it’s immensely enjoyable too, with several moments that will have you grinning from ear to ear.
However in some ways, it’s this uplifting notion that proves to be somewhat detrimental to proceedings, as Neville evades the subjects of race and inequality, despite the richness of socio-political context, merely touching upon on such aspects momentarily and never fully expanding beyond them. It’s this one factor which frustratingly prevents this wonderful picture being something truly special.