You may approach this Oscar-winning documentary expecting some high-calibre pop culture but there’s actually a very human, very interesting story on offer instead. A truly worthy topic, 20 Feet From Stardom looks to the backing singers who have added the unknown, but essential qualities to so many of the songs and performances we all know.
Looking to celebrate a selection of key, but unknown figures, the documentary is laced with melancholy as so many of the accounts we hear are of rose-tinted half-told pasts. Maybe the melancholy is inevitable; this is show-business after all and every one of the people we meet has played second fiddle to personalities, labels and power plays. Reflecting on their careers there is a sense of loss in every account. The title of the documentary takes on real significance as those few feet mean their moment has passed but also that the great legacy of their work includes no mention of them. There’s also a great irony that versions of the poster promoting the documentary highlight the names of the stars that contribute (Sting, Jagger, Springsteen et al). The backing singers are not even the stars of their own story.
20 Feet From Stardom whets your appetite to know more, which could be considered a positive, but this stems from the feeling throughout that everyone is editorialising. We can’t expect everyone to air their or anyone else’s dirty laundry, and this isn’t a call for a tabloid hatchet job, but the vague references to ‘one thing or another’ means there is fascinating detail a breath away that we won’t get to hear. There are broad sweeps of entire careers, stumbles and revivals, coy references to what went on backstage and no doubt left these people have done more living than can be contained in a two-hour documentary. That said, there are rich nuggets of information offered. Some beautifully gritty truths are revealed, in particular around the recording of now classic songs.
The music is what brought these people together; it became their jobs, but it began as passion and raw talent. The documentary is a snapshot of a number of personal histories but with that a broader history of music as well. The seeds of style and influence is everywhere in their effortless performances. One particular archive performance makes Tom Jones look an amateur imitator when performing a duet with a quartet of singers with no scintilla of a career to match his. There is a sense of reverence around the music and truly great voices to behold but somehow the documentary itself, having gathered together so many key people, offers few new performances that capture or recall any glory. The performances are subtle, and yes, impressive, but like the documentary never ratchets home a true belter that would give these performers their dues.