Movie Review: “20 Feet From Stardom”

Published by Clay Cane on Monday, December 30, 2013 at 6:00 pm.

(Photo: Gil Friesen Productions)

(Photo: Gil Friesen Productions)

In 2013, we think every story has been told. But with enough digging, there are still some gems left and who knew that 20 Feet From Stardom, about the history of unsung Black background singers, would be one of the best documentaries of the year. Directed by Morgan Neville, the movie is a must-see for lovers of music, but it’s not just another music doc. This is a film that captures the lengths you will go to make wildest dreams come true.

The heart of the film is the legendary Darlene Love. The church singer changed the trajectory of background singers and, in many ways, the sound of contemporary music with her gospel voice adding soul to pop.  She sang background for Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, Cher and countless others. Whether or not we know it, it’s the infectious hooks sung by background singers that make a hit song. From Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — the background singers put in tons of work and don’t get much of the credit.

All of the singers featured in the doc were just “twenty feet from stardom.” Most of them wanted a solo career and clearly possessed the talent, but the viciousness of the music industry overpowered them. 20 Feet From Stardom wonderfully peels back the layers of fame with candid interviews from Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger and more. How much do you want the fame?  What price will you pay?  Are you willing to give up everything even if your name in lights never happens?

One of the best moments in the film is Lisa Fischer’s story. Best known for her 1991 hit song “How Can I Ease the Pain,” Lisa landed a record deal, got a hit single and even won a Grammy, but she walked away from being a solo artist. Her reason is amazing to hear in our fame-hungry world of today: She didn’t want to be famous.

20 Feet From Stardom is a must-see for anyone who wants to be in the music industry. The history of music from the days of early R&B in the 1950s to the eventual annihilation of background singers in the 1990s to today’s background singers like Judith Hill is woven together like a perfect melody. Plus, rare footage that includes Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner and more.  The unforgettable 20 Feet From Stardom highlights the stories of gifted people praying their time is going to come, which transcends music. Isn’t that what most of us hope for?  In many ways, we all start in the background.  It’s the drive and ambition that craves the center stage — whatever the “stage” is in your life.

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