2013, Movies

20 Feet from Stardom (2013, Morgan Neville)

This is an interesting and affecting, if oddly structured, documentary about what it’s like to be a backup singer. I say oddly structured because it starts out seemingly to be a history of the backing vocalist in rock music, but then it turns out to be the personal stories of a few of the pioneering backing vocalists, as well as one current one. And I guess the choices just feel a little arbitrary, though I understand they had to be made. (I mean, there have been thousands of backing vocalists, I would assume.)

Some of the interviews are quite revealing but I think it would have been interesting to have a little bit more Sheryl Crow as counterpoint to the vocalists they cover who never “made it” (and maybe also covering the racial dimension of that).

But this is certainly an interesting film and I learned a lot. For someone like me, who prides myself on my knowledge of music history minutiae, I was absolutely shocked to learn the widespread nature of singers posing as other singers, not really getting the recognition, fame or compensation they should have. (If you already hate Phil Spector, this film will not change your mind.)


PS The film features an incredible cover of Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, performed by one of the backing vocalists they focus on. Unfortunately, I can only find the studio version – it’s a live TV version in the film, which is better than the one below:

  • Directed by Morgan Neville
  • Produced by Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers, Michael K. Ross
  • Starring:
    • Lou Adler
    • Stevvi Alexander
    • Patti Austin
    • Chris Botti
    • Merry Clayton
    • Sheryl Crow
    • Lisa Fischer
    • Susaye Greene
    • Judith Hill
    • Mick Jagger
    • Mable John
    • Gloria Jones
    • David Lasley
    • Jo Lawry
    • Claudia Lennear
    • Darlene Love
    • Lynn Mabry
    • Bette Midler
    • Cindy Mizelle
    • Janice Pendarvis
    • Nicki Richards
    • Bruce Springsteen
    • Sting
    • Rose Stone (née Stewart)
    • Táta Vega
    • Martha Wash
    • The Waters (Oren, Maxine and Julia Waters)
    • Stevie Wonder
    • Archival footage:
      • David Bowie
      • Ray Charles
      • Michael Jackson
      • Elton John
      • David Letterman
      • Kylie Minogue
  • Music by Various Artists
  • Cinematography by Graham Willoughby, Nicola Marsh
  • Edited by Jason Zeldes, Kevin Klauber, Doug Blush
  • Production companies: Tremolo Productions, Gil Friesen Productions
  • Distributed by RADiUS-TWC
  • Release date: January 17, 2013
  • Running time: 90 minutes
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English
  • Budget: $1 million
  • Box office: $5.8 million

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