20 Feet From Stardom

I think it’s reasonable to say that thousands of years from now, when scripted television and fiction books and full-length movies aren’t being made anymore because everything has been spun-off and sequeled to the point of exhaustion, Netflix will reign even more supreme than it already does because it’ll have stockpiled all the quality documentaries, and it’ll feed our hunger for the consumption of “reality” media until the end of time. And for the idiots, I think the Kardashian show is also available for streaming.

20 Feet From Stardom is one of those wonderful aforementioned documentaries that makes you question why you watch written things at all. (Okay, yes, drastic, especially coming from a writer. But writing is dramatic!) No wonder it won an Oscar. It takes a subject you’ve never thought twice about and magnifies it to fascinating proportions. Director Morgan Neville flips back and forth between the lives and careers of many backup singers, from Darlene Love to Merry Clayton to Lisa Fischer to Judith Hill, giving each of them little timelines, taking us through their lives, and checking in on them in the present day. This structure, and the incredibly high quality old footage of Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, George Harrison, and other stars, and the fact that Clayton and Love and the rest of the older ladies have barely aged a day, give the film a beautiful, timeless feel. Just like the voices it’s presenting to us, center stage.

The women that shared the stage with the aforementioned superstars have mostly gone underappreciated during their careers. Aside from the accolades from the superstars themselves, and the industry cred they maintain, they get shafted at awards ceremonies, and their solo efforts jut don’t chart. They’re sort of stuck in this limbo, supremely talented but unrecognizable. Darlene Love’s story is quite triumphant; after being under the oppressive thumb of Phil Spector for some time, she eventually formed a bond with David Letterman and now performs every year during Christmastime on his show, just enough to keep her name out there and make sure people remember it. Lisa Fischer, on the other hand, has won a Grammy and toured with the Rolling Stones, but still walks into the post office and stands in line like everyone else. It seems almost criminal that no one knows who she is, that the only thing recognizable about her is her voice. And it’s an incredible one, too.

Judith Hill, the youngest of the bunch profiled in this movie, is the one who brought me to tears, probably because of her connection to Michael Jackson, footage of whom will never cease to make me tear up. Part of this scene is in the movie:


Her big break was going to be the This Is It tour, but then he passed away, but then she sang at his funeral, but then she got on The Voice and was eliminated. Ups, downs, a continuous cycle of excitement and disappointment. And I’m sure her experience mirrors those of the women who came before her, with sparkle and personality all their own, but even more so, the ability to blend into the background and make the star shine brighter.

After watching this movie, I’m going to pay way, way more attention to the background singers. Often times, they’re doing most of the heavy lifting.

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