“20 Feet From Stardom” is the best musical documentary of the year. For that matter, it’s one of best documentaries or — oh, hell, let’s go for it — one of the best films of the year with more than half the year still to go.
The film from Morgan Neville, an Emmy-winning veteran of musical docs, sneaks up on you. At first the movie is simply great fun and brilliantly lives up to its log line — the untold story of the backup singers behind many of the legends of the pop music world.
With new and archival footage, both quite extraordinary, Neville delivers toe-tapping, finger-snapping musical blasts from the past with an emphasis not on famous lead singers or bands but rather the blend of voices backing these groups, the “hook” that audiences remember and sing or hum long after the music has faded.
But as “20 Feet” rolls merrily along, you realize Neville is on to something much more profound. As he interviews backup singers and legendary rockers — Sting is unusually perceptive in his remarks — a great topic comes into focus.
What are the sacrifices and rewards of stardom? What does one actually have to do to transverse those 20 feet of stage to become a superstar? And what role does luck play?
When you can perform virtually any style or genre of popular music, then what is the right avenue for a singer to take in playing the star game? Guess wrong and your career may be over. Seemingly, there are only so many slots open for superstardom.
You can belt out great funky soul like Darlene Love did — and still does —only to discover the Aretha Franklin slot is already filled.
It is a testament to this film’s smart approach and great soundtrack that “20 Feet” may well do for the film’s featured backup singers what “Searching for Sugar Man” did for Rodriguez — create a real second act for these amazing ladies who’ve never stopped working and touring.
Darlene Love was the individual who did the heavy lifting on hits by Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick and Frank Sinatra as a young woman and thus established the very nature of the modern-day backup. Which is to say female, African-American, highly attractive and invariably someone who started out singing gospel in church.
The call and response techniques perfected in gospel choirs soon found a new outlet in the frankly sexual overtones perpetuated by Ray Charles and Ike and Tina Turner.
But Love ran into her own bête noire in the person of control freak and present-day social pariah Phil Spector. The “Wall of Sound” producer blocked her dreams of a solo career, seemingly out of sheer nastiness.
Others followed: Merry Clayton, a preacher’s daughter whose voice is truly a gift and, being a preacher’s daughter, she says from God. From her vocal work on Carole King’s legendary “Tapestry” album to a late-night recording session for Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tongue-in-cheek “Sweet Home Alabama,” Clayton is a force of nature who channels her talent into the blends of many others.
Lisa Fischer can match Clayton’s intensity — her voice is more like a musical instrument — and continues to tour with the Stones, in essence following in Clayton’s footsteps. But Tata Vega went from an upcoming Motown star to years in the musical wilderness uncertain of her musical identity.
The film circles back to Michael Jackson’s last backup singer, Judith Hill, who is young and beautiful but while growing in fame herself still searches for the right road to superstardom.
With the backing of the film’s producer, the late, great music exec Gil Friesen and consultants such as record producer Lou Adler, Neville was able to find incredible never-before-seen archival footage and get the music clearances to bring together an enormously satisfying jam session featuring the greatest of backup singers plus superstars such as Sting, Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder.
The editing is a marvel that keeps stories and music flowing while creating startling juxtapositions such as a trio of birds sitting on a tree where one suddenly flies off just as the narration delves into backup singers trying to go solo. How did they get/find that shot?
The film makes clear that an upbeat philosophical perspective — perhaps another talent developed in those church choirs — is necessary to maintain one’s sanity as a backup singer.
This is a role, alas, that will receive less and less attention as the music business focuses more on home studio sessions and “American Idol” type reality shows that crank out instant stars who fade almost as quickly.
Opens: June 14, 2013 (Radius-TWC)
Production company: A Gil Friesen and Tremolo Production
Director: Morgan Neville
Producers: Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers
Executive Producers: George Conrades, Art Bilger, Peter Morton, Joel S. Ehrenkranz
Directors of photography: Nicola B. Marsh, Graham Willoughby
Editors: Jason Zeldes, Kevin Klauber
PG-13 rating, 90 minutes