It’s a film that, like most great documentaries, takes us beyond the veneer of something we so often take for granted. Background artists (whether in film or music), by all means (given their proper name), are relegated to second-tier status during any major performance. Extras create a believable scene around the star, and backing vocalists bolster the solo performance.
20 Feet From Stardom takes us on an almost fantastical journey through the lives of several vocalists who’ve made a living making as the building blocks of performance. Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, and Judith Hill have shared the stage with the likes of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and Sting. Their names aren’t synonymous with solo success but, through 20 Feet From Stardom‘s lens, their stories are beautiful, their presence justified to an audience who, in any other context, would’ve let them blend into the shadows of the stage.
While the film is a marvelous exercise in allowing us to glimpse into another facet of the minority voice, it’s also a celebration of the unity–an almost subcultural family–that these singers formed. They share experience, talent, and an adoration of the craft they’ve perfected over the years. We’re watching artists who’ve overcome the same racial, social, and industry biases as those who receive top billing on the marquee.
Neville makes it clear–like a great documentary filmmaker should–through the juxtaposition of images and patient observation, that these women are, in many cases, more talented vocalists than the singers they stand behind. We don’t need to be told much of anything, as a great documentarian establishes his status quo without words, rather through the overall establishment of a quiet narrative ideology within his work.
Neville, for the most part, allows his subjects’ stories to speak for them. No words exist that could possibly match the tragedy of an seeing artists such as Claudia Lennear and Lisa Fischer teaching Spanish and standing in line at the DMV. Our judgments aside, however, the artistry is what’s important to them, and there’s a sisterhood, a companionship, and a yearning for comfort and validation that unites these women in their shared struggle for fulfillment across different avenues–musically or otherwise.
Neville’s camera is present, yet never prodding. We feel as if these stories are unfolding with us along for the ride, like a child curled up at the lap of a grandparent, drinking in the history, the experience, and years’ worth of pride layed out before us.
There’s a scene, however, which nearly derails the entirety of Neville’s work, that removes the camera’s appreciation for its subjects and replaces it with a sharp, judgmental tone that doesn’t jive with the rest of the work.
A large portion of the film is spent so lovingly engaged–like a hapless soul love-drunk in the presence of a voluptuous other–in his subjects’ work, that there’s little judgment that seeps through the cracks, until Neville takes a very noticeable jab at a contemporary artist.
Toward the end of the film, we’re introduced to Hill, a backup singer who was prepping for Michael Jackson’s This Is It tour shortly before he passed. After Jackson’s death, Hill performed at his funeral and found momentary attention from the media. Her image was defined by association with a superstar. She was a backup singer famous for being a backup singer, though she values her individuality as an artist. Her desire to go solo is made clear, and she consistently notes that she rejected every touring or stage background singing gig she was offered so as not to become pigeonholed by the industry.
Shortly thereafter, we’re shown a clip of Jay Leno introducing Kylie Minogue as a performer on his show, with Hill singing backup. Hill claims countless people dismissed her for lowering herself to such a position, and that she even tried to drastically alter her appearance (with a wig and heavy makeup) in hopes of not being recognized.
It was undoubtedly a move that would pay Hill’s bills, and Minogue clearly shares a different career and artistic trajectory than Hill, though Neville’s inclusion of it begs the audience to compare both women’s talents, and ultimate come to the conclusion that Hill is superior to another.
A film which seems to value and explore the alternative to the norm, the diss is surprisingly off-key, demeaning whatever path Minogue took to achieve her success.
The jab not only upsets the tone of companionship and celebration of artistry the film seeks to establish, but is also unfair to Hill, as it forces the audience to consider the legitimacy of what she’s saying about desiring to be a true artist instead of a check-hungry star. This forces us to then carry judgments over to other aspects of Hill’s career. She appeared on NBC’s “The Voice” just last year, though Neville wisely does not include any mention of it in 20 Feet From Stardom. Is that not, from the perspective of the filmmaker who chose to diss Kylie Minogue, similarly deplorable for a true “artist”?
It’s here that the technical seams begin to show. When a documentarian’s hand is evident, the world we’re soaking up onscreen starts to unravel. Neville’s opinion on artists and their genre is irrelevant, and the focus is momentarily distracted from the well-made points he established earlier in the film.
It opens the film and its subjects up to unnecessary criticism. It’s a dark cloud of negativity and personal opinion that momentarily takes the film from celebrating artistic value and struggle to elevating itself above an alternate facet of the art form we’ve spent the last 90 minutes celebrating.
Individuality, on the other hand, is something Hill should by all means strive to savor. The film hits upon so many meaningful topics of survival. Bills need to be paid, but singularity in any form is natural to human existence. Whether hearing their voices on radio hits without shared credit with the main artists or watching solo projects circle countless drains, that’s where the beauty of the film shines; the persistence of art and individuality comes at a price, though happiness doesn’t have to go down with the ship.
2013 was a strong year for documentaries. Affect turned to action for many who viewed the staggering amount of quality documentaries released last year. Blackfish stirred a sleeping public to action, while films like Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing inspired intense introspection as they deeply explored their subject matter.
Tomorrow’s Academy Awards will likely tip the balance of a heavily-competitive year for documentary films in the favor of one. 20 Feet From Stardom and The Act of Killing are the likeliest contenders to win the Oscar. Experts predict The Act of Killing, though the broad appeal of 20 Feet From Stardom fits nicely within the narrative of the season. 20 Feet From Stardom puts minority voices put on display, much the way 12 Years a Slave amplifies the racial tensions we still endure in our society to this day.
The accessibility of 20 Feet From Stardom works in its favor. Its editing and technical construction are brilliant but, like a fictional narrative, however, its constructed nature seeps through the cracks and reveals various inconsistencies, and for that it’ll likely be singing backup for The Act of Killing come Sunday evening.