Thursday 23 November 2017

Film review: 20 Feet from Stardom

Selected cinemas

20 Feet from Stardom
20 Feet from Stardom

IT MAY be a well trodden path at this stage but Morgan Neville's Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, advertises the extent to which the boulevard of broken dreams is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to providing compelling subject matter for documentary makers.

Last year's excellent documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, also won an Oscar for its study of one of the music industry's great unsung heroes, Sixto Rodriguez and, set in the world of background singers, this compelling piece concerns itself with comparable themes.

Availing of terrific archive footage and insightful contemporary interviews with music industry icons such as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger, the documentary focuses mostly on the career of a number of vastly talented backing vocalists who rose to prominence in the late Sixties and Seventies. Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love and the various other backup singers who feature are not exactly household names, but their collective contribution to the soundtrack of our lives will be instantly recognisable to music-lovers.

It was an era in which backing singers were ubiquitous, and whether it was Clayton's thumping vocals on The Stones's Gimme Shelter or Darlene Love's powerhouse contributions for a variety of artists including Dionne Warwick, the excerpts and reminiscences are uniformly stunning. For many of these artists, backup singing was intended as a stepping stone towards going solo and the documentary gradually morphs into a poignant meditation on the fickleness of fame as it charts the experience of those who attempted to conquer that great divide.

Fascinating psychological insights abound as the likes of Springsteen and Sting weigh in with their thoughts on what's required to negotiate the 20 Feet from Stardom of the title.

Easy to recommend and required viewing for music-lovers and students of the human condition alike, it also holds must-see appeal for those with aspirations to be a player in the fame game. On this evidence, any artistic impulse must be certainly vocational and borderline spiritual if crushing disappointment or disillusionment is to be avoided.


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