20 Feet from Stardom

Morgan Neville begins his compelling documentary 20 Feet from Stardom auspiciously with Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” (“…and the colored girls sing do, da-do, da-do....”) That musical phrase makes for an apt preamble to this personal yet universally relevant film about the predominantly black and predominantly female vocalists whose powerful pipes and soulful harmonies give energy, authority and potency to the rock stars they back-up. The movie explores the largely unsung careers of Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Jo Lawry, and the most famous of all “unknown” singers, Darlene Love. Neville allows these ladies to tell their own stories and fills in the details with firsthand accounts by many of the stars they’ve performed with, such as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder and Sting, as well as producers and other professional vocalists.

Far more than just an account of these women’s lives and a chronicle of one of the most exciting eras in music history, the film explores the themes of fame, ambition, talent, exploitation, spirituality, personal satisfaction and professional achievement. Thus, even if you know nothing about this era in music, this film will engage and move you. If you do know this music well, you will be all the more affected by the stories behind the music and the glimpses into how it was made. The scene in which Merry Clayton returns to the studio where she recorded her iconic vocal on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter,” is alone worth the price of admission, and hearing her solo track isolated from the rest of the song’s mix will send a chill down your spine.

My biggest complaint about the picture is that I wish it spent more time freely indulging in the music these people created. I could have spent twice as long adrift in that “Gimmie Shelter” session, and many of the other stories would also have benefited from the film slowing down and lingering on the illustrate vintage TV clips. What keeps the movie from being exceptional is that Neville makes the rooky mistake of indulging in “up close and personal” footage, shot as his subjects are making the movie and going about their current lives. When you have great archival material and fantastic interviews, this kind of amateur filmmaking only serves to water down your picture and soften its impact.

Directed by Morgan Neville
Produced by Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen, and Caitrin Rogers

With: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Jo Lawry, Stevvi Alexander, Lou Adler, Chris Botti, Gloria Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Oren, Maxine, and Julia Waters

Cinematography: Nicola Marsh and Graham Willoughby
Editing: Douglas Blush, Kevin Klauber, and Jason Zeldes

Runtime: 91 min
Release Date: 28 November 2013
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1