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 Video and Audio
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.