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FILM REVIEW: 20 Feet From Stardom

Categories: Movies

'It's a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is...complicated. It's a conceptual leap.'

— Bruce Springsteen speaking of backup singers

A revealing documentary about the hidden lives, the art and heartbreak of backup singers, 20 Feet From Stardom is documentary that should not be missed. A journey with the emotional wallop of Searching for Sugar Man, the doc directed by Morgan Neville is packed with a grab bag of archival footage guaranteed to delight music nerds, such as watching a young Luther Vandross outperforming David Bowie on Young Americans. Or hearing Mary Clayton's blistering take on the Rolling Stone's Gimme Shelter. That, and many other revealing slices of audio, will change the way you hear some classic songs.

But Twenty Feet is much more than trivia. It's about the way some singers sacrifice their careers in service to the stars, including Darlene Love of the Blossoms who sang for Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra and even on The Monster Mash. The singer discovered a new low hearing her own voice on a Christmas song, while working as a cleaning lady.

 Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer at the mic for a stirring rendition of Lean on Me. (Weinstein Co.)

20 Feet from Stardom is a movie with no shortage of both comebacks and failures. Neville does great job of illustrating the point with smart camera tricks and double exposures as we watch backup singers literally fade from view. One of the most intriguing characters is Lisa Fischer, a performer who sang backup for Luther Vandross and Sting and who is the first Mick Jagger calls when the Stones hit the road. With a voice as clear as a bell, she wows with a bouncy jazz scat session that brightens the room. Fischer has been in the back as a backup singer, but also at the front, winning a Grammy for her solo album and then falling back into anonymity, as Neville communicates her fall from fame in a single incisive edit.

It would be wrong to suggest 20 Feet From Stardom is implying becoming your own star is the only path to artistic fulfillment. The film is also an appreciation of the art of blending your voice to support someone else. As Lisa herself says "Some people will do anything to be famous and then there's others who just sing."

RATING: 4.5 /5

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