Starring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer
Countless great pop songs feature backing singers, some of whom are incredibly talented and have the most wonderful singing voices. Yet despite having the talent, these unsung heroes of pop music that made so many songs sound so memorable never get the fame or credit to match that talent. In a fickle industry where luck and timing can be just as important as talent, these are voices that we have all heard countless times, but without even knowing the name that goes with the voice.
Beating The Act of Killing to the 2014 Oscar for best documentary was probably more effective than any marketing campaign could be, and though comparisons between that and 20 Feet from Stardom are slightly unfair due to their very different subjects and tone, it certainly has put an increased level of expectation on it for those yet to see it, which again may be slightly unfair.
For his latest documentary Morgan Neville has certainly chosen an interesting subject matter that should appeal to anyone who not only likes listening to music, but also can appreciate and gets equally frustrated by the fickle and deeply unfair nature of the entertainment industry, and society as a whole. To learn that talent is not necessarily enough to be successful in the music industry is not exactly a mind blowing revelation, but what 20 Feet from Stardom may lack in true shocking revelations, it makes up for in passion and heart.
Using a combination of intriguing archive footage and interviews with famous artists, as well as deeply honest interviews with the backing singers themselves and the camera following them on the their daily life now, it is a film that engages from start to finish. The many backing singers that the film tells the story of all emerge as deeply sympathetic characters, and it is impossible not to be moved by their individual stories.
When hearing many of the classic songs that these singers sang on and realising that without them the song would not be the same, but yet these are names that I and I am sure many others have never heard of, is quite a heartbreaking thought. The genuine heartbreak and compassion we feel for these very talented and passionate singers is only enhanced by revelations as to how powerful producers like Phil Spector treated them or stories of their own failed attempts at solo careers.
20 Feet from Stardom is deserving of its Oscar win, not just because it is a very well made and engaging documentary, but also because it finally informs of us of who the people that made a vital contribution to so many classic pop records actually were and ultimately puts them in the very much deserved spotlight.