Written by Guillermo Troncoso.
The role of a backup singer is to be overlooked, to compliment the lead vocalist while blending into the overall track. It’s an often forgotten and under-appreciated part of the music industry, with many back-up singers never receiving the recognition they truly deserve. 20 Feet from Stardom offers an insight into some of the music industry’s most revered backup artists, their love of the music and the frustrations that come with being oh-so-close to the limelight.
We meet a variety of talented vocalists, all of whom have worked in the shadows of some of the music industry’s biggest artists. We learn that many of these individuals wanted more, they wanted to be at the forefront. Their lives have taken various paths, some more positive than others. The up and down nature of the industry, the cut-throat dealings from record labels, and plain bad timing, all culminate in some under-appreciated outcomes. 20 Feet from Stardom can be an incredibly frustrating study of what could have been.
Fantastic archival footage shows us these incredible vocalists working with artists the likes of Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and more. In fact, it’s quite impressive to see the handful of backup singers that were used to make some of music’s biggest hits, ranging from R&B to rock. Interviews with Bette Midler, Bruce Springstein, Patti Austin, Chris Botti, Mike Jagger, and Sting help cement the point that these individuals are indeed important and talented.
The talent that these singers have is a point that may be driven home one too many times. Archival footage is mixed with some beautifully filmed performances (captured specifically for the documentary), constantly nailing home that, yes, they could really sing. These moments are beautiful and certainly provide music lovers with outstanding works, but it ends up feeling a little redundant; given the personal stories that we are given snippets of.
One singer became religious, another posed for Playboy, and another even began cleaning houses to make ends meet. One singer even won a Grammy-award for a hit R&B single, but then backed away from the limelight when she realised that fame wasn’t what she wanted. It’s these individual, personal stories that provide the documentary with its backbone. Unfortunately, we don’t get enough of them. It ends up teasing out moments of dramatic insight into the industry, their lives and pop culture as a whole, without completely offering anything of substance.
20 Feet from Stardom is a decent look at an often overlooked section of the music industry. It’s played a little too safe for its own good, which detracts from it reaching the same levels that these individuals reach with their incredible vocals. Still, this is a pleasure to watch and hear.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10