*** (out of four)
In “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” former backup singer Sheryl Crow—someone who should have remained a backup at best, IMO—claims, “The voice is the one thing we all are born with.” Actually, that’s not true, Sheryl, and you saying this is one more reason I don’t like you.
The doc, however, contains a lot of strong insights and anecdotes about the unheralded sideline artists who would probably love to just be, to paraphrase “Almost Famous,” the blurry men and women in the background of the photo. Usually, backup singers get no recognition and aren’t in the photo at all. Mick Jagger may select Merry Clayton to sing on “Gimme Shelter” and love having Lisa Fischer as a lead background vocalist on every Stones tour since ’89, but please raise your hand now if you’ve ever previously heard of Merry Clayton or Lisa Fischer.
Fantastic music fills “Twenty Feet From Stardom.” It’s a testament to all the under-appreciated talent out there to learn more about people like the Waters family (who can be heard on “Thriller,” “The Lion King,” “Avatar” and “Growing Pains”) and Darlene Love, a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee who virtually personifies the notion of a big, star-quality voice that spent years behind the scenes. Director Morgan Neville neglects to question why Phil Spector pushed Love aside in the ‘60s by recording her voice and calling it the Crystals, a band she was not in.
Neville also raises race-related questions he doesn’t explore. Stevie Wonder notes that back-up singers were white at first, until artists wanted vocalists with more passion who wouldn’t just be confined to paper. Needless to say, it’s an over-generalization to treat whites as uptight and blacks as soulful, and there have been plenty of singers who arguably sound different than they look--Adele and Amy Winehouse to name just two.
Some of the back-ups featured in “Stardom” tried to be stars and failed. Others prefer to stay out of the limelight. In many ways, the notion of stardom seems arbitrary, yet also sometimes a reflection of the artist’s ambition more than their talent.
A well-executed, good idea for a doc, “Twenty Feet From Stardom” salutes songs that wouldn’t work without the back-ups and, in effect, turn us all into back-up singers. The film doesn’t, however, mention that Judith Hill, a back-up who earned attention for her performance at a memorial for Michael Jackson, appeared on “The Voice” in 2013 in her continued attempt to make a name for herself. The long-term effects of her success on that show (she finished in the top 8) will be seen in time, something far more forgiving than the music industry.
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