20 Feet from Stardom

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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  • ★★★½ review by Adam Cook on Letterboxd

    20 Feet from Stardom is an affectionate and uplifting crowd-pleaser from documentarian, Morgan Neville. When it pipped The Act of Killing to the best documentary Oscar more than a few eyebrows were raised but it is easy to see why this appealed to Academy voters as it is not only touching and soulful but also a film that offers a potted history of America through the lens of contemporary music.

    It is a documentary that is a tribute to the unsung stars of popular music. Morgan Neville shines the spotlight on the backing singers that brought some of the biggest tracks in music history to life. Working with megastars and groups like The Rolling Stones and David Bowie they are an integral part in creating hit records yet remain nameless and faceless to many.

    The film features interviews from both the backing singers and the stars who benefit from their considerable talents. As interesting as it is to hear the stars pay their respects to their unappreciated colleagues the documentary comes to life when hearing directly from the backing singers themselves and the difficulties and joys of their craft. Naturally the film focuses on some of the biggest names in the field such as Darlene Love and the incredible Merry Clayton who both tried to emerge as solo artists.

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the documentary is why such great vocalists were unable to make it as stars in their own rights. Clayton released several amazing solo records but never achieved the success she deserved. From corporate politics to sheer bad luck it seems each singer has their own tale of woe and misfortune as they fail to emerge from the shadows and receive the dues they are truly owed.

    Unsurprisingly, the film is full of music including archival footage and new recordings. The music is rousing, soulful and toe-tapping and even though Neville’s approach is disappointingly conventional there is no doubt that this is a joyous and inspiring documentary with a wide appeal.

    20 Feet from Stardom might not be an earth shattering documentary but it sure is an entertaining one. With charismatic and candid contributors and a fantastic soundtrack it isn’t too hard to see why this became one of the most popular documentaries of 2013.

  • ★★★½ review by Esteban Gonzalez on Letterboxd

    "Their songs are legendary, but they are 20 feet from stardom"

    If someone were to ask you if you know who Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, or Judith Hill are you would probably have no clue, but I can guarantee you that you have heard their voices and hummed their music many times (and if you are too young to recall these songs, I guarantee you that the artists you listen to now have been highly influenced by their music). These talented ladies have spent most their lives singing in the background for such talented artists as Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Ray, Michael Jackson, and so on. Director, Morgan Neville, gives these ladies the opportunity to finally take center stage and share their testimonies and experiences with the audience in this fascinating and engaging documentary. There is just something uplifting about being able to listen to what they have to say and finally receiving some credit for their major contribution in helping shape music across the globe (beginning in the 50's with the Motown revolution). They may have never made it as leading singers, but the passion these women have for music transcends the camera and listening to their testimonies almost becomes a religious experience in itself. The film has some compelling interviews and uses archives really well to set the tone and take us through a history lesson in music. I also enjoyed the interviews with the famous artists like Stevie Wonder, Sting, and Mick Jagger who spoke very fondly of these women who have played an instrumental part in their music. It is hard to resist a documentary like this with such uplifting music.

    Getting to hear the testimonies of some of these talented ladies was probably the highlight of this documentary, although at times some of the interviews really didn't seem to be going anywhere. At other times they raised questions that they sort of left out in the air and only scratched the surface instead of delving deep. The documentary was a bit uneven in that sense, but every time I thought I was going to get irritated by it, the music and the passion these people have for it brought me right back in. I can see how this film attracted Academy voters as it won for best documentary feature, but by no means do I think it was the best documentary of the year. It is good to give these ladies credit for their contribution to the music industry, but the documentary never feels groundbreaking. After Searching for Sugarman's Oscar win last year, this marks the second year in a row in which a music themed documentary wins the Academy's votes, and there has sort of been a shift in the voters from political themes aiming towards the artistic side. It was an entertaining and uplifting documentary and I am glad I got to know a little more about these women and understand the passion they share for music. The 90 minute documentary succeeds in giving these ladies a voice of their own and making the audience appreciate the work and sacrifice it takes to be a backup singer.

  • ★★★½ review by Rod Sedgwick on Letterboxd

    The back-up singer lives in the shadows, infecting our minds and hearts with hooks that we will sing and hum along to as we go about our day. But what of these talented men and women that mostly yearn for recognition, but are somehow left in the wake of the stars and heroes that we follow?

    This run of the mill talking head documentary explores that very topic with a passionate cry for attention, and although the subject is of utmost interest and importance to music buffs and historians like myself, it barely managed to raise my pulse despite recognising some of the most marvellous vocal performances ever committed to tape.

    Stories We Tell is still scratching it's head at it's Oscar snub...

  • ★★★½ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd


    Las Vegas Weekly review. This is television, but the subject is irresistible. And as someone who's always been kind of obsessed with "Gimm(i)e Shelter," I was pretty much floored by that isolated vocal track.

  • ★★★½ review by David Topper on Letterboxd

    20 Feet from Stardom is largely dependant on the viewers preference of music.

    Overall, the documentary is not amazing. It gets it point across, and its hopeful tone was probably the reason why it won the Oscar for best documentary.

    But the music it focuses on is simply a personal favoritte of mine.

    Rolling Stones, Sting, and many more are artists I really enjoy listening to.

    20 Feet from Stardom focuses on many background singers, those great voices you hear in many famous songs, like the terrific back up singer in the Stones's Gimme Shelter.

    Highlighting their contribution to music, and trying to show their trials in becoming a solo artists, their failuires and overall career as back up singers.

    Again, it is not something new. It is again a documentary about show-business showing the artists that are pushed to the side, never being able to cross the line to greateness.

    Yet its hopeful and touching tone elevates it a little, and again, the music is simply great.

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