Texas Art & Film's Dr. Donna Copeland's Film Reviews & Features
Everyone knows Bowie, Charles, Crow, Jagger, Midler, Springsteen, Sting, Vandross, and Wonder; but how many have heard of the back-up singers for these artists, women like Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Janice Pendarvis, Tata Vega, and Claudia Lennear?  Morgan Neville (director/producer) and Gil Friesen (producer with the original idea for the film) have created one of the best documentaries I have seen about a subject few know anything about.  The singers—mostly black women—have remained largely in the shadows, although by the stars’ admission, they have been intrinsic to the lead singer’s success. 
            Many began in gospel choirs and had a passion for music.  Many are the daughters of preachers. They entered the professional music world in various ways, learning how to meld their own voices with that of the group and not stand out.  Across time, either because of their own ambitions or because back-up singing began to fade, some had aspirations to go out on their own.  We hear those stories and are reminded of what a long, difficult pathway that is, and how it requires a business sense as well as pure luck.  Judith Hill was a back-up singer and in rehearsals with Michael Jackson when he suddenly died.  This was devastating, of course; however, her singing at his memorial service brought her to the public’s attention, and after appearing on the TV show “The Voice”, she seems well on her way to becoming a star in her own right.
            A part of the film that is most rewarding is to hear artists like Springsteen, Sting, Wonder, and Jagger talk about the women and what they have brought to their concerts.  A couple of them say, “I just receded to the background and let her do her thing.”  We find out about the times they have spent together, simply enjoying one another and having fun.  The back-ups seem to have a particular knack for pleasing others similar to what they have done with their voices:  So, ironically, part of the reason for their not achieving lead status is that most of their lives have been geared toward acquiescing and blending—not enough “ego”, as some have said.
            Twenty Feet from Stardom stirs up all kinds of emotions—like inspiration, joy, heartbreak, laughter, sadness—while informing us about the tremendous work and talent required for success in the music industry.  It is a very well made film, with plenty of opportunity to learn about each singer, the group as a whole, and the industry in general.  Most importantly, the segments of music are long enough for us to appreciate their songs.                                            Grade:  A


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