Words: Jamie McBride
Director: Morgan Neville
Cast: Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer
Running time: 91 minutes
Done through interviews, archive footage and present day footage following the lives of the backup singers mainly focused on, ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ looks at the careers of a number of black female backup singers, all working in R&B and soul – think The Supremes, Motown etc. – and interestingly looks at the general life of being a backup singer. First off, Neville is obviously a very good filmmaker. He gets great, insightful interviews out of each of his interviewees, especially those whose careers are the main focus of the film, and creates a fantastically warm tone for the film that doesn’t just allow the audience in easily but welcomes them with open arms. The women that Neville follows are obviously joyful personalities and he captures that well – an example is Merry Clayton’s first few seconds on the screen, where she and Neville are already joking with each other, which is really nice to watch.
But a special mention must be given to the look of the film – the camerawork is good, but what really stands out is the effects that are used intermittently, like the montage of the covers of failed solo records made by each of the backup singers interviewed.These visual aids only pop up a few times in the film but they’re so pleasing to watch that they need mentioning. As does the editing for the film, which is obviously expert. A fantastic moment that blends two separate interviews to give real insight into the song ‘Gimme Shelter’ (insight that I’d never even considered) is a real joy to watch, so I won’t ruin it by giving each detail, but it’s a really great point in the film that shows the ability and insight of those behind this film. But this great editing extends to the blending of interviews and archive footage as well, putting present day interviews next to old footage of the early performances of these now experienced backup singers, which is really interesting to compare.
Neville’s focus doesn’t just stick with the singers reminiscing about the great times they had though, in fact it touches upon some of the darker aspects of the industry, like the sexualisation of some of the women. That he touches upon these issues shows that the director isn’t just making a feel-good nostalgia film but really does look at each part of the music industry and in particular its treatment of the people working in it and has created an insightful piece of work. The film even looks at the historical and political context of the singers’ careers, giving a nicely rounded view of the world of backup singing. The one flaw that did strike me however was the fact that the film did tend to occasionally go from one point to the next quite quickly, not giving as much time to one as it would the other. Whilst this does make sense, I felt myself wanting to hear more about certain points that were covered in a few minutes, but this is a minor issue.