In many ways, Twenty Feet from Stardom has become the 2013/2014 season's equivalent of Searching for Sugar Man: the uplifting, inspirational music documentary that brings to light an overlooked but important moment of musical history, giving unjustly forgotten performers their due. In this case, the performers are the backup singers that gave flavour, heft and distinctiveness to many classic rock, R&B and soul recordings by Phil Spector, the Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, Joe Cocker and so many others. Mostly African-American, mostly female, and with extensive church music experience, these singers were often visceral, attention-grabbing presences that made those recordings stand out while being merely featured performers.

     However, they seldom managed to translate their acknowledgement and reputation within the industry into long-lasting solo stardom: Merry Clayton, Tata Vega or Lisa Fischer's solo careers never really took off, Darlene Love - the effective "star" in what is an ensemble movie -, who sang in many of Phil Spector's groundbreaking "wall of sound" recordings, was consistently denied a solo spot of her own for too long. And Claudia Lennear has completely retired from singing, after realising that moving into a solo career was a one-way-street from which there was no turning back. Today, all of them have been consistently reevaluated and have finally attained a measure of fame, and Twenty Feet from Stardom purports to give them their due.

     Despite the great music, though, and the gripping life stories here presented in a heartfelt way, Morgan Neville's piece is not a great film. It's more conventional and nowhere near as artful or as linear as Searching for Sugar Man, in many ways suggesting a blown-up long-form TV special that would find its true home at VH1, BET or HBO (you can even try to spot just where the commercial breaks are meant to go!): talking heads (though hefty ones such as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting or Mick Jagger) interspersed with archive footage and some reality-style interpolations. Mr. Neville's work is better when it delves into the history and context of each singer's life and career, but loses focus every time newcomer Judith Hill shows up; she is being presented as the contemporary equivalent of these veteran singers when it's clear the "model" that made Ms. Love, Ms. Clayton or Ms. Fischer's is no longer applicable, and there's a world of difference between her experiences and everyone else's, making her a somewhat bewildering intrusion.

     For all the good stuff that is going on here, musically and historically, there's a sense that Twenty Feet from Stardom never really does anything more than skim the surface of a fascinating subject. The music and the goodwill of the viewers are, however, not enough to paper over the film's slight if cheerful nature. And explain even less why, in a line-up that included a lot more worthier films, this was the one that got away with the Academy Award for documentary feature.

USA 2013
90 minutes
Director Morgan Neville; cinematographers Nicola Marsh and Graham Willoughby (colour); editors Kevin Klauber and Jason Zeldes, supervised by Doug Blush; producers Caitrin Rogers, Gil Friesen and Mr. Neville, Gil Friesen Productions and Tremolo Productions
Screened April 1st 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)


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