TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM

2.5 Stars
Year Released: 2012
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 89 minutes
Click to Expand Credits:

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, Pussy 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.



Posted on January 20, 2013 in Reviews by
Buffer


If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
Popular Stories from Around the Web
5 Comments on "TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM"

  1. Chris Costin on Sun, 7th Jul 2013 12:56 am 

    What nonsense. The movie is compelling and powerful.


    Report Comment

  2. Tony E on Sat, 20th Jul 2013 12:19 pm 

    I’m not sure we saw the same movie. While you make some legitimate points, in aggregate I thought this was an electrifying, moving documentary, full of musical performances that just about tore the roof off the theater. No, it is not a perfect film, but nothing is, and this is a brilliant one.


    Report Comment

  3. Jessica on Mon, 3rd Mar 2014 4:44 pm 

    I agree with you completely. While I loved the idea of the film, what I ended up with felt like I was going to be prompted to pull out my credit card to order “Best of the Back-Ups.” I’m sure there are awesome stories to tell from these very important people, but of the many people in this film, Darlene Love’s was the only one worth hearing.


    Report Comment

  4. Drake on Sat, 8th Mar 2014 2:02 am 

    You can find a few holes in almost any film and I might agree with a few of your points but it’s still a damned good documentary.


    Report Comment

  5. The Movie Waffler on Thu, 13th Mar 2014 9:36 am 

    Finally a reviewer who is analysing the execution rather than the subject of this doc. 20 Feet doesn’t so much explore what it means to be a backing singer as what it means to not be a lead singer. The film tells us almost nothing about what makes a great backing singer and plays with the truth somewhat to create drama. When Sting is the most insightful talking head in your doc you’ve really got problems. Great tunes though.


    Report Comment

Tell us what you're thinking...





Comments are governed by the Terms of Use of this Site. Click on the "Report Comment" link if you feel a comment is in violation of the Terms of Use, and the comment will be reviewed appropriately.