20 Feet From Stardom (2013) – Film Review


Winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature,  ‘20 Feet From Stardom‘ explores the first-hand accounts and experiences of several backing singers who have worked with the biggest names of the music industry – Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie to name a few. Meanwhile, revealing details from recording sessions with prominent musicians and producers to the lifestyle that revolves around being a ‘background singer’ exposing the treatment and attitude towards background singers. This engaging feature offers a perspective into the lives of the people you hear on the biggest songs of the music industry but don’t recognise.

The documentary film primarily focuses on the lives of four women, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton and Judith Hill among others for providing background vocals on some of the most widely recognised songs of all-time. Additionally, the film offers an insight through many facets of their lives from their upbringing to the peak in their career to their personal downfalls.Aside from the discussion and revelation of the experiences, the film sets the context of the music industry during the time when these women were at their peak, as far back from the height of Motown era in the late 1950s to 1960s compared to the state of the music industry today. The film features talking heads (interviews) of several familiar faces such as Mick Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder to provide their own experiences, as well as to support the claims in the film.  The depiction of these accounts combine the use of mixed media like stock footage of recording sessions and concert footage, as well as images from the time. The documentary film convincingly explores the treatment of backing singers during the golden era of British Rock era in the 1970s and the peak of the Motown – soul and blues era in the late 1950s to 1960s, simultaneously emphasising the changing attitudes of background singers as the treatment and the background singer’s place in the industry has changed dramatically over the last few decades.

I particularly enjoyed the incorporation of archived footage as it felt immersive and engaging, additionally I learnt a great deal about the way the music industry worked. In relation to that, I was intrigued by the representation of the industry – primarily male dominated and controlled, the film emphasises an underlining of female empowerment. In addition to the ideology of ‘putting yourself out there’ and providing a first hand experience of the struggle to achieve fame and once achieving it, maintaining it. My only criticism in regards to the film would be the amount of scenes featuring ‘performances’ by the women. I understand that the documentary is essentially about music and everything related to it however, the number of instances felt repetitive and could have provided a stronger argument to the topic of discussion – backing singers.

Overall, I enjoyed the documentary’s portrayal of these prominent backing singers, I gathered much intell in the way the industry was run at the time and the importance that was placed on backing singers, primarily during the 1960s-1970s, and how it has changed due to the on-going change in the music industry. It is interesting to see how backing vocals of other races would be portrayed, as the majority of the women during the time were of minority descent.

IMDB: 7.5/10

My rating: 8/10

Wafiq Airudin


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