20 Feet From Stardom

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"This is great stuff - a fantastic musical documentary."

One of the earliest bits of music that appears in the film is Lou Reed's Take A Walk On The Wild Side - specifically the passage that features the lines "and the coloured girls sing..." This is a film about those girls, featuring extensive interviews with women who have often almost invisibly added texture, depth, and feeling to any number of songs. Indeed, it is statistically improbable that you won't have heard any of the work the women featured have, well, featured in.

Darlene Love, who recorded "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and starred as Mrs Murtaugh in all four Lethal Weapon movies. Merry Clayton, who sang backing vocals on Gimme Shelter, was the Acid Queen in the 1972 recoding of Tommy. Lisa Fischer, a successful artist in her own right who has been touring with the Stones for decades. Judith Hill, who would have performed with Michael Jackson in his London shows. Dr Mable John, a Raelette - in her own words, it's important to "check out your worth".

Copy picture

This is a worthy film. It's dripping with celebrity - beyond interviews with Bruce Springsteen and Sting and Mick Jagger and archive footage of David Bowie and Phil Spector and Michael Jackson and brief cameos from Spike Lee and Elton John and honestly, it is ridiculous - Tom Jones and Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder, and behind all of them women, mostly black women, singing.

They are compelling, the revelations various and fascinating. With crisp animated visuals Morgan Neville supplements extensive, even exhaustive, interviews with crisp design throughout. There's neat use of Sixties style part-colour animation, a sort of reverse highlight picking out the women on the covers of record after record, in publicity still after publicity still, on song after song. There's some neat use of split-screen, and while in truth this might contribute to it feeling like it's a bit old-fashioned it's deliberately so. The era of the backing group, girl-trios like the Blossoms, mixed groups like the Waters Family, larger outfits like the Raelettes, it may well have passed. There's some concern about the prevelance of auto-tune, and given the effort and contributions made by those interviewed it's not unjustified.

These are the women who made the Monster Mash a graveyard smash, who put the 'shoop' in the song, in the case of the Waters Family the ones who made those pterosaurs in Avatar sound so good. There are some fascinating facts - beyond the Waters Family's contribution to Avatar, it was surprising to discover who provided the backing vocals on Sweet Home Alabama and even more surprising to discover the circumstances that led to Merry Clayton's appearance on Gimme Shelter. It's quite open about the industry, about the tyranny of producers like Phil Spector, the contractual shenanigans and "the window", all the various ways that the transition from backing to lead was made difficult - the titular 20 feet from stardom are a hard few yards to cross.

Some of them, like Lisa Fischer and Tata Vega are quite open about the decisions that they've made - as Vega observes, "If I'd made it... I'd have OD'd somewhere". As the Boss points out "that walk to the front is complicated". Some made it without making it - practises like "ghosting" are discussed, but for all the negatives, indeed, perhaps because of them, this is a touching, uplifting film.

If you get the chance, you should see it at the cinema, or at least with the best sound system you can. There are at least 35 musical credits, it drips with archive footage - Luther Vandross working with David Bowie on Young Americans, working with his own backing vocalists, those women interviewed, participants in a musical collaboration that verges on apprenticeship.

This is great stuff - a fantastic musical documentary. There are a few weak notes, mostly organisational. While most of those introduced get a potted biography in the form of a record sleeve or similar in the corner, it's not always present on their first substantial appearance. That might be an artifact of re-editing, but with this many stories to tell and this many people to tell them it can be a little hard to keep track.

That's pretty much the only complaint. It's got a couple of uses of strong language, admittedly, but it's dealing with some pretty difficult topics: sex, race, class; religion and commerce; it's got the civil rights movement and a fair few other things besides. There's the toll the industry takes. Footage of Michael Jackson and Judith Hill might be familiar to those who saw This Is It, but it's still striking to see it. It's hard to be more effusive - this is foot-tapping, thought-provoking, Oscar-nominated - go and see it.

Reviewed on: 21 Feb 2014
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Backing singers tell their stories.
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