By Mike Dub
There seem to be two kinds of films that win Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, particularly in recent years. First, there are the hard-hitting, didactic, social activist films that hope to engender political change by making us all feel really bad: films like Bowling for Columbine, Born into Brothels, Taxi to the Dark Side, and The Cove. Then there are the feel-good stories about redemption, perseverance, and talent: Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man and Undefeated. This year’s winner, 20 Feet from Stardom, not only falls into the latter category, it provides a bright new sheen to the subgenre. In fact, if I were reputable enough to be a quote whore, I’d write something like, “The most purely entertaining musical documentary Oscar winner since Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got.”
Not that there is anything wrong with being entertaining, but director Morgan Neville (no relation to singer Aaron Neville, in case you were wondering) concentrates so much on proving just how wonderfully his subjects can sing, the film never reaches beyond the attractive, waxy coating of its musical performances. Early in the film, there is the prospect of depth, especially in its discussion of the early career of the great Darlene Love, who recorded several songs under Phil Spector in the early 1960s that would be credited, unbeknownst to her, to the popular girl group The Crystals. The movie showcases her singing in early sound and video clips, but through a series of interviews she also describes hearing her song for the first time, credited to someone else, decries Spector as a controlling egomaniac, bemoans her poor business skills. In this early section, Love begins to reclaim a voice that she was denied for so long.
However, before long the film loses itself in a lackluster structure that focuses more on inclusivity than depth. The film’s primary focus resides on three singers: Love, Merry Clayton, the iconic female backup on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and Lisa Fischer, a powerhouse from the following generation. It also features interviews with about a dozen other backup singers. Neville tries to weave all their stories together, but rather than creating a common voice among the women, the film feels more like partially written chapters in disparate narratives, leaving stories half-told and questions unasked. After all, am I the only one who wants to know what happened to Darlene Love in the handful of years between leaving Phil Spector and becoming a house cleaner to earn a living? Or, for that matter, how backup singer Claudia Lennear, former Playmate and reported inspiration for the song “Brown Sugar,” wound up a high school Spanish teacher?
Alongside the stars of the film, various veteran backup singers pop up to discuss their own trials and tribulations in the industry. A few seconds of the film covers the objectifying sexuality that backup singers are expected to indulge in. Another couple of seconds features the perfunctory “the-60s-was-a-crazy-time” montage, followed by a few seconds of equally obligatory regret over rampant drug use in the 1970s. A few more seconds lament the advances of technology that make everything “easier” for these young kids today. Even a segment that attempts to discover why so many backup singers fail as solo artists seems rushed and even superficial. At one point, the film features a sequence in which backup singers express their ambition for stardom while Judith Hill, a young phenom who sang backup for Michael Jackson before he died, actually plays a song about determination and following your dreams.
But with all that being said, the film exists in order to show off the talent, and on that level it cannot help but succeed. All the performances, whether they be archival footage or scenes shot specifically for the film, showcase the extraordinary talent of true professionals who have spent decades perfecting their craft. Even if the movie isn’t necessarily profound, the strength of the music and the sheer charisma of nearly everyone in the film makes for an enjoyable, if light, experience – sort of like driving around, listening to the oldies station on a sunny afternoon.