As we enjoy the delights of the summer movie season — with big films opening each week — the Reel Dad checks out the nutritional value of one of the new season’s smaller films, the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.
They bring their talents, ambitions and fears to each song they perform, every note they perfect, all the singers they support. No matter what they may dream, they submerge their aspirations for the sake of the star. And they cling to the background as they wonder what the warmth of the spotlight is all about.
Morgan Neville’s documentary 20 Feet from Stardom gives us front row seats for a revealing look inside the lives of women who forsake their identities to support the biggest names in music, from Elton John to David Bowie to Mick Jagger. But this is more than a catalogue of performances of the last 50 years. The film opens up a part of the music business that is easy to overlook. How many times have we listened to a song, or watched a performer, without acknowledging the contributions of these talented singers? And what does it take, in today’s music business, for someone so gifted to move from the background to the front row?
Without artificial sentimentality, Neville initiates a journey to musical truth as he looks beyond the footlights at what drives these women on and off stage. We see, in Darlene Love, a woman so talented in voice and energetic in spirit that her personality reaches beyond the recording booth. As she reflects on the highs and lows of a career, from singing backup on Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel” to Phil Spector’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” to her solo hit, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Love’s journey touches us with her authenticity of hopes, depths of determination and consequences of the choices she makes. And she admits she might have become a bigger solo name if she had focused on stardom, as the comfort of singing backup made it easy to defer her dreams.
We get to know, in Lisa Fischer, a performer of such scope and power that she aspires to do more than sing in the background. With her early years devoted to supporting such artists as Melba Moore and Luther Vandross, she perfects her unique rhythm and blues style with her solo track “How Can I Ease the Pain” for which she wins a Grammy in 1992. But the pressure of a soloist’s career inspires her to return to the backup world as she discovers that, for her, the work matters more than the intensity of the spotlight. The film lovingly explores the details of her day-to-day life as well as the mutual admiration she shares with the ever-talented Jagger as they share the stage for several years.
By focusing on these and other women, without exaggerating the onstage drama, Neville paints a compelling picture of the realities of the music business, the humanity that may surprise, the disappointments that often define. Without apologizing to these women for the professional accomplishments they miss, he celebrates the music they create from choir lofts of churches to recording studios. No matter your musical tastes, you will learn more about what happens behind the scenes to create the songs we savor. Neville reminds us that, in the music business, what spontaneously happens off stage can often be more entertaining than what is carefully rehearsed.
Film Nutritional Value
20 Feet from Stardom
* Content: High. As the film recalls what we experience with a range of legendary performers, it celebrates the amazing contributions of the many backup singers.
* Entertainment: High. Along with excerpts of many pop hits from the past 50 years, the film invites us to get to know fascinating women who simply love to sing.
* Message: High. Anyone who enjoys pop music, and enjoys taking a nostalgic look at the past, will enjoy the new insights the film offers.
* Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to talk with children about how the practicalities of life can shape ambitions can be meaningful.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. You and your children can enjoy sharing this film for its entertainment as well as an opportunity to remember favorite pop songs.
(20 Feet from Stardom is rated PG-13 for “some strong language and sexual material.” The film runs 91 minutes.)
4 Popcorn Buckets