Film Review: 20 Feet from Stardom

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It’s a long walk to the front – this is the sentiment intoned by everyone from Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sheryl Crow throughout this documentary film. Of course these are men and women who make the walk all the time, but this film is about the men and women who stand at the back or sides of the stage; roughly 20 feet from that spot in the brilliant limelight. These are the people whose harmonies you know on your favourite records, the ones you sing along to rather than the main lyrics, but you wouldn’t be able to name if asked.

The film follows women many women, such as Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Táta Vega. These are names you might not instantly recognise – despite the fact that they do have records to their names – but, for example, Lisa Fischer has been the lead female vocalist on tour with the Rolling Stones since the late eighties, as well as being associated with other acts from Luther Vandross to Nine Inch Nails. Another star of the film, Judith Hill, was due to tour with Michael Jackson before his untimely death, and she subsequently sang at his commemoration service.

The 90 minute film itself is entwined with music that we all know and love, from sixties Motown through to 80s rock and roll. With guest appearances from the likes Stevie Wonder and Sting it isn’t short of a little bit of rock and roll superstar-dom, but what strikes is the insight into how much these behind the scenes voices provide. Imagine your favourite records without the harmonising voices, or the last time you went to see a band on tour without their backing singers, it just wouldn’t have the same impact, would it? It was a brilliant story that is seldom told and it’s done in a fascinating way; through the eyes of these women as they go about their work and daily lives. Sometimes you can feel their joy in their music, but of course these stories are not without sadness; the music industry can be a treacherous place to work and there were tales of betrayal, of contracts gone wrong, and the mistreatment of artists – particularly of African-American artists in 1960s America.

Directed by Morgan Neville the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival and picked up an Academy Award this year for best documentary. Praise has not been short for the film and it smashed box office targets – it is still showing in small cinemas around the UK and I strongly suggest that if you can, that you go and see it. As one reviewer said: you will come out singing! It is a feel good movie, but one with heart as well.

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