Most people with any knowledge of rock music (or Martin Scorsese's movies) can summon The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" to mind. Powerful riffs, Mick Jagger, and a woman, belting out the memorable lyric, "it's just a shot away" at the top of her lungs. Merry Clayton generally got her work doing back-up vocals, and she's not alone: 20 Feet From Stardom interviews a whole group of singers who -- while they may not have been the stars -- provided crucial, possibly even signature elements to classic tracks like "Gimme Shelter", "He's a Rebel", "Sweet Home Alabama", and "Thriller".
Director Morgan Neville guides the viewer through a mostly chronological history of back-up singers in pop music, starting with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love (who film fans may recognize as Roger Murtaugh's wife from the Lethal Weapon series) and continuing through to singer Judith Hill, a contemporary singer / songwriter who ended up appearing on "The Voice" while the film was hitting the festival circuit (more on Judith in a minute). Along the way, Neville lines up an all-star roster of guests to help fill in the blanks, including Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, and Bette Midler, all of whom are wonderfully genuine when praising these women's talents.
While this structure provides a basic overview of each participant's career path, in the individual interviews with Love, Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and Hill, Neville shifts from facts to each woman's personal perspective on their respective careers. Although Darlene Love has a number of stories about being trapped in a contract with Phil Spector and a simultaneously sad and inspiring memory of hearing her song "Christmas, Baby Please Come Home" on the radio, Fischer's story is given the most emphasis, touching on her brush with mainstream fame (she won a Grammy for her solo single "How Can I Release the Pain" in 1991), while explaining her personal reasons for remaining outside the spotlight. With the other women's stories -- Fischer's 15 minutes is as close as any of them come to breaking out -- Neville deftly stays on the correct side of every chasm: regret but not pity, disappointment, but not bitterness.
The only minor nitpick is the inclusion of Hill, who is dropped into the film rather abruptly after Neville spends a lengthy period of time with Fischer. For a film that is meant to celebrate the contribution of background artists to popular culture, the material focusing on Hill concerns her desire to break out and be known as a solo singer and songwriter. Although the two chunks of the film are positioned against each other, Neville lacks a smooth transition from Fischer to Hill, something that would indicate the film is intentionally comparing and contrasting two people hoping to get something different out of their careers. In addition, Hill's story feels as if it's been placed into the film backward, with sections that explain her aspirations before her history is (briefly) touched on.
Some of Neville's cinematography is a bit odd; in early interviews, the camera unexpectedly bobs up and down a little, but the film balances itself out with great use of archive footage, spotlighting most of the participants in their prime. More importantly, such nitpicks feel irrelevant in the face of such an infectious, uplifting experience. Some music fans may be disappointed to see Love's Spector years, the unsuccessful solo records, and other side dramas played down or even outright ignored, but 20 Feet From Stardom isn't about reliving all the tough times these women encountered over the years, it's about giving them another chance to step into the spotlight.
The art for 20 Feet From Stardom is the theatrical art, which is reasonably classy, not overly Photoshopped...and also not very interesting. The design resembles a modern magazine cover, failing to emphasize the film's general focus on music history. Watching the film, it seems like a missed opportunity for the designer(s) not to have borrowed from the style of the film's retro opening credits to give the cover a more specific flavor, in order to better attract the intended audience to the film. (It also seems like an odd slight to list the music celebrities in the film on the cover, but not the people being spotlighted -- did the artists see the movie?) The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
20 Feet From Stardom's 1.78:1 1080p AVC picture is generally very strong, offering a crisp digital image with an impressive handle on clarity and detail. Black levels ought to be a little deeper, but it's a minor nitpick. (Obviously, quality varies when it comes to the archival material.) Of course, the real star of the show is the film's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, which is as lively and vibrant as anyone could hope for. Unsurprisingly, music is given incredible care and detail, with each note rendered with a near-hypnotic delicacy. It's a resonant, enveloping sensation, allowing the viewer to sink into the sound. That said, the sound design in general is quite impressive, with little subtle touches adding to the quality of the presentation -- listen, for example, at the way the sound of passing airplane is blended with the distant roar of applause in a vintage clip right at the beginning. Marvelous. No other audio tracks are included, just English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Spanish subtitles.
Although the bullet-point list of extras on this disc don't add up to much, it's an impressive amount of content. First up is a series of 12 deleted scenes (29:00). These include comments about recording jingles, more time spent with some of the singers mostly on the periphery of the doc (Jo Lawry, Stevvi Alexander), Merry Clayton's granddaughter and talk about her late husband, and of course, more singing. There's a glimpse of a split-screen technique (wisely abandoned). The material fills in some of my complaints about the feature, properly introducing Judith Hill and more fully exploring the sacrifices many of these singers make in order to have a career and go on the road. Still, the amount of time the filmmakers spent with Hill seems unusual. Perhaps the material could've been cut into a supplement focusing entirely on her...kind of like "The Buddy System" (8:52), a short film made up of unused or extra material focusing on the community background singers share.
The last extra finally focuses on the making of the film: a "Times Talks" Q&A (29:24) with Morgan Neville, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer. It's a shame that there's no audio commentary with these same participants on the disc, but this funny, lively chat fills some of that void. All three women are on fire, dazzling the audience with their candor and humor. Could have watched another hour of this.
A trailer for Cutie and the Boxer plays before the main menu. No trailer for 20 Feet From Stardom is included. All extras are presented in HD.
20 Feet From Stardom is a charmer, inviting viewers in for a warm, nostalgic look at some of the music industry's greatest unsung heroes. Coupled with a strong presentation (wonderful audio!) and a fine selection of extras, this disc is highly recommended.
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