This review was originally published on January 20, 2013…
Sundance features no shortage of ultra-timely documentaries this year – including ones focusing on Occupy Wall Street, P***y Riot, and WikiLeaks – and Twenty Feet from Stardom is immediately refreshing insofar as it looks to the past for its story. As with his last film, 2011’s Troubadours, Morgan Neville’s latest highlights a musical movement that had its heyday in the 1970s: famous singer-songwriters there, unknown backup singers here. But nothing it offers on this potentially rich subject is revelatory or even especially compelling; much of it consists of heretofore unheralded performers explaining their plight and agreeing with the film’s central (and, in a way, only) argument that backup singers are important and underappreciated.
There’s an impressive array of talking-head interviewees – Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Mick Jagger among them – there to lend credence to the notion up, but they too say more or less the same thing. Giving such not-quite-stars as Tata Vega and Lisa Fischer their moment in the sun is a commendable aim, but it comes at the expense of any real insight.
Which isn’t to say that these women’s stories aren’t worth telling. It’s just that the way Neville tells them too often feels like an extended episode of Behind the Music rather than a genuinely probing inquiry. (A few musical sequences made up mostly of archival footage are put together quite elegantly, but they prove to be exceptions rather than the norm.) There’s little real attempt to delve into the systemic issues that make things the way they are for these women, just a one-sided look at their careers that inadvertently shows why most of them never made it to the spotlight in the first place: some are better singers than they are songwriters, others aren’t aggressive enough self-promoters, and others still simply aren’t interested in fame.
A notable exception is Darlene Love, who successfully transitioned to lead-singer status starting with her recordings for Phil Spector in the mid-’60s. The way her arc contrasts with those of the less fortunate ends up revealing more than any of Neville’s more flashy techniques manage to. Twenty Feet from Stardom improves quite a bit once it allows Love’s story to fill in the gaps left by everyone else’s, but by the time that happens it’s too little, too late.