Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom may focus on backup singers, but the thrills and chills it induces are fit for center stage. Deftly juggling numerous story lines and music industry facets while keeping a mostly chronological timeline, the documentary delves deep into the conflict of being satisfied with an important and frequently rewarding role or wanting the spotlight for one’s self.
Though the names Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Claudia Lennear aren’t exactly household staples, their anonymous sounds are, a fact that achieves epiphany status when the film points out that the catchy hooks to which listeners most often sing along are primarily the work of harmony vocalists. Those who have benefited from such sounds, including Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Sting, stop by to pay homage and share anecdotes on their colleagues, yet while their celebrity status lends some star wattage to the project and helps solidify the above ladies’ talents, it’s mere icing. The featured artists are so gifted and have such interesting journeys to tell that the film would be fine without the testimonials, welcome and well-handled as they may be.
Perhaps the ultimate “behind the music” episode, full of “oh, that was her!” moments, 20 Feet From Stardom’s standout stretch comes as Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger recall the former’s fiery vocals on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Called into the studio in the middle of the night, pregnant and her hair in rollers, Clayton laid down a take whose legacy continues to resonate. Listening to the raw a capella track 40+ years later, her powerful voice cracking under the intensity put forth, Clayton’s reflective face says more than words (even Jagger’s) can convey, and inspires a healthy dose of goosebumps for even the casual rock fan. (Not mentioned in the film is that Clayton suffered a miscarriage shortly after the session, the cause of which was attributed to the intense physical strain she experienced to achieve these musical ends.)
The sequence is but one of the film’s many standout parts, all woven together with great respect on Neville’s part. Under his guidance the ladies are given the star treatment of which their peers have long viewed them worthy, and by presenting familiar songs and musicians in a more complete historical context, he reaches the heights of non-fiction filmmaking, educating as well as entertaining. In a year of standout music docs, his is currently the one to beat.
Rated PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material.
20 Feet From Stardom is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.