Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lou Adler, Stevvi Alexander, Patti Austin, Dr. Todd Boyd, Merry Clayton, Sheryl Crow, Lisa Fischer, Susaye Greene, Judith Hill, Mick Jagger, Dr. Mable John, Gloria Jones, Jo Lawry, Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love, Lynn Mabry, Bette Midler, Cindy Mizelle, Janice Pendarvis, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Rose Stone, Táta Vega, Oren Waters, Julia Waters, Maxine Waters, Stevie Wonder
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Morgan Neville
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material
Running Time: 90
Date: 06/28/2013

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

You know their voices. If you listen to the radio at all, you've heard their voices. They are the backup singers that make Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Michael Jackson, Carole King, Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones, and many others sound soooo good.

Joe Cocker's lead vocal on "Feelin' Alright" is inseparable from the backing vocals. Cocker's "Not feeling too good myself" is useless without the preamble "I'm feelin' alright." Merry Clayton -- so called because she was born on Christmas day -- was one of the singers on that record. She's also the stuff of legend thanks to her awesome performance on "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones, singing "it's just a shot away!" and "Rape! Murder!" in-between Mick Jagger's verses.

Clayton is just one of the great singers that appears in the joyous documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, directed by veteran filmmaker Morgan Neville. Another is Darlene Love, who recorded "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" while working under the iron grip of Phil Spector. She received credit for that record, but much of her other work was released without her name, under The Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans and others. At one point, she gave up and took a job cleaning homes before she started singing again.

Then there's Claudia Lennear, who apparently inspired Mick Jagger's song "Brown Sugar" and went on to pose in Playboy Magazine. And Michael Jackson's backup singer Judith Hill found a small measure of unexpected notoriety when her performance at Jackson's funeral moved millions.

One of the constant struggles in 20 Feet from Stardom is just what the title indicates: how close are these singers to taking the lead and becoming stars in their own right? Several have tried, such as Clayton and Patti Austin, but their careers never took off. Others seem happy being in the background.

Another of the movie's crucial themes is the honesty of music, and the idea serving others with your voice (not just yourself). This is perhaps an important reason why these singers aren't famous, because their voices couldn't co-exist with fame. They must find a way to blend in with a song that has been created by others. At the same time, many of these singers are religious and believe that they sing as a vessel for God, which seems to follow suit.

The star performers that showed up for this movie, such as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bette Midler, and Mick Jagger, are in awe of their backup singers. They love them and couldn't live without them. And they all subscribe to this same ideal: to become a singer for the sole reason of seeking fame and fortune isn't enough and will never be spiritually fulfilling. (Tell that to all those "American Idol" and "X Factor" contestants.)

This is one of those documentaries that you just wish could keep going. There's so much glorious material -- and music -- here, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and though it goes all over the place, many of the themes and ideas eventually cohere into a solid vision. The saddest part comes in the film's coda: that today's pop stars -- such as they are -- seem to feel they have no need for backing vocalists. That's everyone's loss.

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