20 Feet From Stardom review

20 Feet From Stardom finally arrives in UK cinemas this week, following its success on Oscar night. The film scored a win for Best Documentary Feature that was tainted, just a little, by an immediate critical backlash in favour of fellow nominee, The Act of Killing.

It wasn’t a surprise to see the charming and entertaining 20 Feet From Stardom triumph over the difficult Act of Killing when the award in question has been voted for by a group we know well for their tastes in middle of the road fare.

Director Morgan Neville really does play it safe with 20 Feet From Stardom and as a result, this is an easy film to enjoy but not one that will necessarily impress you a great deal, at least not beyond the talents of its stars.

The central focus of the doc is a collection of female African-American backing singers who share a great deal in common but have charted different career trajectories. There’s Darlene Love for instance, who seems to get the bulk of screen time. She worked as a successful back-up singer and ghosted for The Crystals but struggled to break out as a solo artist after Phil Spector essentially sabotaged her attempts to do so. Love then gave up professional singing and got a job as a cleaner, only to find fame late in life, thanks in part David Letterman inviting on her show every year to perform her classic Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).

Love’s story is contrasted with that of the other singers, such as Claudia Lennear, an Ikette who eventually gave up professional singing and is now a Spanish teacher; Lisa Fischer, who went from backing singer to Grammy winning solo artist to backing singer again; and Judith Hill, a younger singer who is currently balancing a her career in backing vocals with a bid for the limelight.

Those are just a few of many singers to appear in the film. Neville’s diffused approach does lead to a wonderful array of stories, but by spreading the subject so thinly across so many voices there is little room for any deeper investigations.

Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton – who recorded a handful of exceptional but sadly underheard records as a solo artist – give an electrifying account of the recording sessions for Gimme Shelter. The isolated track of Clayton’s vocal is guaranteed to send a chill down your spine, but considering how politically charged the song is, it’s disappointing that the film spends so little time on the implications and wider circumstances that surrounded her performance.

Themes that seem ripe for deeper discussion, such as the constant control of white men over the careers of black women, or the overt sexualisation of female backing singers, have sadly been skimmed over and not discussed in a sufficiently meaningful or enlightening manner.

The film does carry off an excellent job of highlighting the incredible work of these highly talented women, and if one is looking for a casual and easy-going doc that’s also reasonably polished, then 20 Feet From Stardom won’t disappoint. When all is done, however, the subject remains ready for someone to dig a little deeper and to explore these women’s stories more fully.

20 Feet From Stardom is in UK cinemas from the 28th of March, and is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix in the US.