REVIEW: 20 Feet From Stardom

29 07 2013

To call background singers the unsung heroes of the music industry is completely clichéd, but it’s truly the best way to describe the true importance revealed by Morgan Neville’s documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.”  Little did I know that it was the background singer that provided the sound that made “Gimme Shelter” such an indispensable part of Martin Scorsese’s films.  (Sorry, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I think primarily in terms of cinema.)

The curtain Neville pulls back on the industry is always interesting, and it often left me smiling while gaping in disbelief.  I never outright disdained disrespected background singers, but I never really considered them an essential portion of the music itself.  Boy, was I wrong; as one of the background singers in the film points out, much of the time we sing along with their lines.

While the cool factor makes “20 Feet From Stardom” an undeniably fun and entertaining watch for everyone who likes music, Neville ultimately settles for simple and breezy.  The documentary was on to something when it explores background singers as a metaphor for the struggle of black females in the American civil rights movement.  That thought, however, goes unfulfilled and underdeveloped.

The film also struggles a bit structurally as it jumps around from background singer to background singer without much logic, making it hard to follow at times.  With the exception of Darlene Love, whose catalog I’ve been poring through on Spotify for the past few days, I left knowing very little about each individual female.  Neville’s insights might have been sharpened had he gone more in-depth on a few women rather than hitting such a broad spectrum of experiences.

But I think my appreciation for the contributions of these background singers grew significantly from watching “20 Feet From Stardom.”  Though these vocalists do not stand front and center, their work is still crucially important to the success of so much music.  B / 2halfstars

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