Director: Morgan Neville
Starring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill
Running time: 91 mins
Release date: March 28th
When Morgan Neville began researching for his Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, he was stunned by the dearth of pre-existing material on back-up singers in the music industry. With no books or previous films on his chosen subject to refer to, the director had to start from scratch. So he interviewed 50 singers, and after a ruthless 10-month editing process he had what he wanted in the can. Unfortunately for him and for us, many of those interviewed did not make the final cut. But those who did survive the chop make an indelible impression on a film that is rich in substance and long overdue.
Neville’s documentary looks at the prominence of back-up singers in the music industry since the 1960s and how their contributions formed an integral part of major moments in musical and cultural history, such as the Phil Spector sound and the civil rights movement. We are introduced to characters who were both embraced and exploited by the likes of Spector, and to others who soldiered with seminal rock n roll acts including the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Sting and Joe Cocker. Some of them tried and failed to make it on their own while others – such as Judith hill – are currently striving to make that transition from back-up singer to main artist.
During the editing process, Neville was keen to focus on a group of singers whose experiences echoed each other. The individuals featured differ in age, yet they do share much in common. Most are African American and come from a gospel music background. This makes them perfect candidates for back-up duties, as their focus has always tended to be on collective harmony in their approach to their work. Religion is not a theme in 20 Feet From Stardom, but the idea of song as a pure expression of one’s soul is. And although these singers have immaculate gifts, making it as an artist in one’s own right requires a whole other set of skills as Neville demonstrates – charisma, cunning, a sense of timing, endurance, good fortune.
Many of those featured have had a rough time of it over the years. But an inherent sense of vocation seems to drive them on regardless. And that is what makes the film so compelling – it is heartfelt, poignant, and shines a light the on vulnerabilities as well as the talents of interesting characters.
Neville puts a human face on a sector of the music business that has traditionally been confined to the shadows. But at the same time we don’t learn too much about the personal lives of the singers, which is a shame. They have had their professional ups-and-downs, but the question of how these hiccups impacted on their personal lives remains unanswered. Perhaps he did not want to dwell on the negatives too much for fear of disrupting the emotional tempo of the overall work.
It is no surprise that 20 Feet From Stardom won the Oscar this year – showbiz types voting for a documentary about showbiz people makes perfect sense. But the film does resonate beyond the narrow confines of the entertainment industry, while at the same time inviting us to alter our perceptions of that same milieu. Neville has recently spoken of how our brains aren’t really programmed to notice the back-up singers. But thanks to this latest effort of his, that might not be the case in future.