20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

20 feet from stardom poster 2013 movie documentary
9.0 Overall Score

Great music, great performers, unsung heroes

Documentary sometimes lacks direction but still is fun

Movie Info

Movie Name:  20 Feet from Stardom

Studio:  Tremolo Productions

Genre(s):  Documentary/Musical

Release Date(s):  January 17, 2013 (Sundance)/June 14, 2013 (US)

MPAA Rating:  PG-13


Gotta love Darlene Love and her Letterman appearances

Fame is a fine line.  While some singers become massive stars others find themselves sidelined to the world of a back-up singers.  The stars take the credit and the glory while the nameless provide the hooks that everyone remembers.  It is possible to cross between the two worlds, but the cases are rare.  For some stardom isn’t an option or the desire…simply singing is the love.

Directed by Morgan Neville, 20 Feet from Stardom is a documentary feature examining the history, role, and evolution of the back-up singer.  It follows a number of singers and looks at singers that changed the game like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and recently Judith Hill.  The movie was released to critical acclaim and won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.


Luther Vandross sings back-up on “The Young Americans”

I am a documentary fan and a fan of a lot of the music presented in this movie.  It is a nice and interesting glimpse into the music industry that you don’t always get to see.

The movie covers a lot of ground.  It is a fun ride but it sometimes lacks a bit of direction.  The movie at points feels like a historical telling of the history of back-up singers, mini-biopics, and praise or condemnation of the process.  Despite this, I enjoyed the film and the stories it told…the message however is a complete judgment call.  I would probably have to say that it takes just as much strength to sing back-up and not everyone has that strength.


It’s a shame she never became a big star…

The movie does a good job selecting singers to follow.  I could watch a whole film on Darlene Love, and the makers used her as their template for the movie and inserted other back-up singers along the way.  Love’s story is interesting enough that I hated going away from it.  I do like the contrast of Merry Clayton to Love who was given more of a solo opportunity early and became a victim of the system while Love found her real success much later.  Judith Hill’s addition to the movie shows the current state of back-up singers who for the most part seems to be more goal-driven to be lead singers.  In telling the story, you also get to see some conversations with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow, Bette Midler, and Stevie Wonder who are interviewed about their singers.


This Is It was supposed to be Judith Hill’s big break…but her break turned out to be Jackson’s funeral

The movie does use a lot of great new footage and vintage footage to tell their story.  I was rather impressed by Merry Clayton’s performance from her time as a solo artist and seeing Darlene Love on David Letterman is always good.  The movie even features some images from the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It to show Judith Hill’s story.  It does make a nice analogy at the end of the film with swarming sparrows.  It draws the idea that individually the sparrows flying might not be as unique but when they fly with the group they make something special…much like the back-up singers.

20 Feet from Stardom is a nice documentary that due to the all the music could also be considered a musical in itself.  You should seek out this film if you are a fan of music and would like to see some great performances that you might not have noticed.

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Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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