La la land – Twenty Feet from Stardom review

20 Feet from Stardom

By Simon Miraudo
December 9, 2013

Twenty Feet from Stardom is the latest documentary to burrow into the deeper recesses of the music industry, with the intention of setting the record straight and giving unsung heroes their due. We’ve previously seen forgotten folkster Rodriguez, would-be metal-heroes Anvil, and proto-punks Death given their big-screen close up, and now we look twenty feet behind them, casting our eye over the under-regarded background singers who’ve helped define almost every great era of music.

Though Twenty Feet from Stardom is a fine doco, and makes an insurmountable case for the background artists’ place in history, you have to wonder which lesser known trades will be next be argued as being even more important than the lead singers themselves. Sound Engineers? Album Cover Designers? Whoever Invented That Particularly Sticky Kind of Price Sticker That You Can Never Peel Off The Album No Matter How Sharp Your Nails Are? I particularly look forward to seeing that last movie, if only so the true culprit can be named, and we can gather a posse to bring them to justice.

20 Feet from Stardom

Director Morgan Neville focuses on a select few singers in his film: Darlene Love, the former Phil Spector protégé whose brief dalliance with fame was snuffed out too soon, leading to her taking work cleaning houses while her famed track ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ would seasonally play on the radio; Lisa Fischer, a one-time Grammy winner with an inimitable voice; Merry Clayton, responsible for giving The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ its apocalyptic refrain (hearing the isolated track of her recording session is the picture’s highlight); infamous Ikette Claudia Lennear; rising talent Judith Hill; and then there is the curious Waters family, two sisters and a brother who probably need to spend more time with people whose last name isn’t ‘Waters.’

Actual superstars like Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, and, well, Sting chime in to insist that, yes, these background singers are responsible for making Spector’s productions truly sparkle, and giving 70s rockers an essential edge. (That the majority of these backing artists are African American highlights how desperate the British bands were, in particular, to emulate that otherwise unreachable ‘Black’ sound.)

This is a treat for those with an affinity for hearing voices of unequalled talent. The very act of Twenty Feet From Stardom existing, hopefully, means that they’re getting the appreciation they’ve long been denied.  It might suffer from slight overlength, but I sympathise entirely with Neville. If I had this much talent in the one room, and so much concert footage of them bringing down the house, adding ‘la la las’ and ‘oohs’ to some of the greatest songs ever written, I wouldn’t quite know what to cut out either.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

Twenty Feet from Stardom plays the Perth International Arts Festival from December 9 to 22, 2013.

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