20 Feet From Stardom

20 FEET FROM STARDOM. Starring Darlene Love, Merry Preston, Judith Hill. Directed by Morgan Neville. Rated M (Coarse language) 90 minutes.

How does one find oneself 20 feet from stardom, in front of, to the side of, or behind stardom?

One of the answers is to be a back-up singer. This very entertaining documentary, especially for afficionados of the music that is presented, is an exploration of how many of the American back-up singers experienced their lives, their performances, their dreams, perhaps, of being a solo artist, or relishing the achievement that they had as supporting many of the stars.

It should be said that there is a great deal of singing and music, in the film, an opportunity to see stars like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, in performance but focusing on the back-ups, after listening to their stories and recounting their experiences of what it was like to sing, to be associated with the stars.

One of the main singers to be featured is Darlene Love, going back to footage of the 1960s to see her in performance, and in the succeeding decades, eventually, at the age of 40, becoming a very successful solo artist with multi-selling records. She appeared for years on the David Letterman Show singing her Christmas song. She is interviewed and seen throughout the film, and in 2011 receiving award acknowledgements with Bette Midler saying it was about time. Another singer featured in the film is Merry Preston, and her featured career.

A more recent singer is Judith Hill, who was back-up for the proposed Michael Jackson final tour, and her singing at his memorial service. While she has the talent for and sometimes has been a solo artist, she enjoys the work of collaborating with the group, and relied on by such talent as Elton John and Kylie Minogue for her contributions.

The backup singers featured in this film are African-Americans. And so, the documentary is also a survey of the role of these singers from the 1960s when the expectation was that back-ups would be white. But The Blossoms, a vital group with different rhythms, came on the scene and opened the way for many other singers in backup. Is interesting to note that so many of them came from church groups with the great tradition of singing, one of them, Mabel John, being a minister in a contemporary church and instructing young singers.

Also in the film are comments from many of the star performers: from Bette Midler, from Sting, from Mick Jagger, and several sequences with Stevie Wonder, who voice their appreciation of the singers.

Of course, life isn’t plain sailing. Darlene Love reminisces about taking up a cleaning job before she realised what she wanted from life and her talent. The documentary seems intent on avoiding any gossip, delving into personal problems, avoiding discussing marital situations or difficulties. This means that the film’s outlook is very positive, choosing the particular singers, interviewing them sympathetically, listening to their stories, visualising them with a great deal of film and television footage, and inviting the audience to appreciate these often unsung (while they were singing) talents of American show business during the 20th century.

It is definitely a feelgood documentary, and with its focus on the music, the singing and some undaunted personalities. Why not?

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


Out November 21 2013.

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