Directed by Morgan Neville in fan-boy mode (that’s high praise), Twenty Feet from Stardom is an exquisitely rendered look at the dialectics of celebrity and artistry, luck and hard work, its conversation laced with smart observations about race and gender. At heart, it’s a praise-song for the many black women whose backing oohs and aahs have done the heavy lifting of turning good songs into classics and rock stars into icons. In its goals of tracking the birth and evolution of the background singer, and rescuing the women (primarily but not exclusively black) and men (a much smaller number whose ranks include the late Luther Vandross) from the sidelines, Neville’s camera takes in a staggering amount—old performance footage and photos; original interviews with everyone from Darlene Love and Merry Clayton to Sting and Bruce Springsteen. Neville understands that one way pop stars function is as our proxies. Through them we get to imagine ourselves as talented, beautiful, sexy, powerful, and infallible. Even their failures are glossed with a patina of glam we common folk are denied when our lives crumble. In focusing on the backing singer, Neville complicates our notions of success, failure, and heroism. Perhaps a tad too long, Stardom is a rousing and at times heartbreaking cinematic experience. It does what the most powerful films and music have always done, which is to spark contemplation of our own lives and choices, and our place in the world, while also stoking compassion and empathy for lives far removed from our own.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 13, 2013