The basics: 20 Feet from Stardom goes behind the scenes of the last fifty years of music to showcase the backup singers behind some of the biggest hits in pop, rock, and R&B.
My thoughts: Admittedly, the description did little for me. I finally decided to see it because it keeps getting nominated for so many awards. I should have paid attention earlier because 20 Feet from Stardom is the best documentary I've seen this year (and I've already seen fifteen.) While the description is certainly true, what makes 20 Feet from Stardom, like so many great works of art, so special are all of the other intangibles. It's not a coincidence that the backup singers are overwhelming black and female. This powerful social narrative moved me deeply. The stories of these individuals are fascinating enough, but their collective story is much deeper.
While the issues of racism and sexism are addressed as possible answers to the recurring question of 'why wasn't she a famous star?', the film also explores other complexities about the price, both literal and figurative, of stardom. It explores the roots of backup singing in black churches. It tackles so many big issues while never venturing too far from its supposed purpose of looking at the careers of backup singers.
It's a credit to this film how many people, famous and not, are interviewed in it. Filmmaker Morgan Neville incorporates an astonishing number of people and storylines seamlessly. Underscoring all of these characters is a beautiful soundtrack, including live performances and famous recordings.
The verdict: 20 Feet from Stardom surprised me with the depth of its emotion and intellectual curiosity. It's a superbly crafted exploration of the music industry, the price of fame, talent, and backup singers. It tackles many heavy issues with a deft touch, attempts to answer complicated questions, and incorporates its musical subject beautifully.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 89 minutes
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