20 Feet from Stardom (2013) (PG-13)

Perhaps Darlene Love shouldn't have been so happy when "20 Feet from Stardom" snatched the Oscar for Best Documentary from the jaws of "The Act of Killing" (most people, even in this short hindsight, begrudge the film for knocking "The Act..." off of the pedestal). As the producers gratefully accepted the Oscar they honored Darlene Love and, much like Philippe Petit showed off when "Man on Wire" won, she belted out a song. Yet this act I feel contradicts the very poignancy of "20 Feet from Stardom" and if anyone should have been up there singing, it should have been Judith Hill.
This documentary observes the background singers in what is considered to be the "golden age of music". They observe the progression of the background singers from the era of early Ray Charles up to the Rolling Stones. Though the film makes points that the art of background singing has been lost in the digital sweep up music, giving us pop hit after sugar-pop hit, it doesn't analyze how music has changed since the late 90s.
"20 Feet from Stardom" or "Twenty Feet from Stardom" takes the pains to look a little past the lead singer of a band to notice the unloved: the background singers.
Of course, this leaves the viewer wondering when the guitarists and the drummers to get their own documentary, but this film is very clear that the human voice has something intangible that audiences either do or do not respond to.
Beginning in the era of white dominated music, the film has no shame in saying that a true background singer has a little soul...the majority of the time they are black. This is key to the movie because the history of music takes us through the civil rights movement and the songs that were written during that time including "Sweet Home Alabama" which gives the listener a new appreciation of the song.
The film focuses mainly on Darlene Love because of what happened between her and Phil Spector. Having signed a contract for him, Darlene found her voice being used for other artists who would just smile and accept her talent as their own.
The film does not touch on the issue of song writing, which, again, could be its own film.
From Luther Vandross to Sting to David Bowie to Cher to The Beatles, the film doesn't hesitate to show the true essence of many songs that you may be familiar with.
This film would have a lot more meaning to those growing up with these songs on their radios instead of the next generation who doesn't remember their release.
Have you heard the old Christmas song "Baby Please Come Home"? Yeah, that's Darlene Love. This gives you an idea of how influential these background singers are.
Yet have we even heard the names of some of these people: Merry Clayton, the Walkers, or Lisa Fischer?
Perhaps the most hypnotic moments of the film are when Lisa Fischer opens her mouth to sing. Her voice is as transcendent as any I have ever heard. Hers is a tremendous talent defying explanation or true praise. In one interview, she likens herself to a married couple. When a couple enters a room and they split, you can still sense that "string of connection" between them. Lisa's never had that, not with one person. She feels that she belongs to everyone.
In the film you have a wide array of characters, the most loud of course being Mrs. Love herself. Boisterous personalities, revealing stories, and wonderful cinematography—the actual point of "20 Feet from Stardom" doesn't hit you until well after the film has gotten into its history. How does one make the jump from background singer to real star?
If we are to believe the movie, it might not happen at all.
For this reason, the film is wonderfully well-timed, like a 4/4 count. With shows like "American Idol" (hopefully ending its pop-culture run soon) and "The Voice", the idea of launching someone into stardom is always on our minds. Then you see how hard these women and men work to be background singers and you feel humbled.
"20 Feet from Stardom" is a hugely fun film, one with a giant heart. It's hard not to get captivated by the film's joyous nature and it is ever harder not to get haunted by the idea of the most brilliant vocalists in the world being taken out of the spotlight, just feet from fame.

Score: ★★★½

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