Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom documentary is about backup singers and their role in the musical industry. The film is nominated for the Best Documentary this year, and is one of the two art-related nominations—the other one is Cutie and the Boxer about the Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara.
20 Feet from Stardom is not Morgan Neville’s first music-related documentary. The director has examines music topics in almost all his movies, and has been nominated for three Grammys, including one for his Johnny Cash’s America. But the director sees 20 Feet from Stardom as a documentary about more than just music:
The experience of being a backup singer is something that a lot of people have in their careers. […] We are not all stars. We all are somewhere in the middle and we have to deal with it.
20 Feet from Stardom remains very dynamic all throughout and the complex editing prevents the talking-head interviews from being boring. Naturally, the film has a lot of music, which adds mood to the story.
The film features stars such as Sheryl Crow (once a backup singer), Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and Sting. In an honest comment about why some are more popular than others, Sting says:
It’s not really about talent, you know. It’s circumstances, luck, it’s destiny. I don’t know what it is. But the best people deal with that.
Mick Jagger, however, was less serious (he was never about being serious though, was he?!) about the topic:
Singing, you know, “ uh-s and ah-s,” it’s kinda fun for a minute. Uh…I’m not sure if I like to do it for a living.
20 Feet from Stardom looks at the flip side of the musical industry, in a way like Drew Christie’s Naturally, J.J. Cale, and examines the lives of the lesser known singers that are often more talented than the starts they sing for. Ultimately, 20 Feet from Stardom deals with the subjective and culturally contingent nature of fame and success.
Some of the singers in the film, such as Darlene Love and Judith Hill are struggling to build a solo career outside of their backup singing. They are probably a good example of Morgan Neville’s comment about people “in the middle.” Darlene Love is far from being unknown, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and starred in the Lethal Weapon movies among others. But just like Judith Hill, who was a backup singer for Michael Jackson, she had to learn about the musical business the hard way.
Others in 20 Feet from Stardom, such as Lisa Fisher, had attempted to be solo artists with less success.
It takes a tremendous amount of energy to be a solo artist and a tremendous amount of ego to want to do that. And she never had that kind of ego.
Success, therefore, seems to be more a matter of conforming to the business side of music. As one of the backup singers put it:
I think there’s a psychology behind it. I think most background singers will agree we’re not really very good self-promoters. You know, the industry is for those who put themselves in the spotlight and are willing to play the game. And some people aren’t.