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Sundance review: “Twenty Feet From Stardom”

by on January 20, 2013


Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein swooped on Twenty Feet from Stardom immediately after the film helped launched the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and with good reason.

While much festival fare, whether documentary or narrative in nature, tends to delve into the dark and depressing, the sheer joy of watching the incredible voices on display in this documentary about backup singers is a welcome treat. This film is so full of great music, spanning decades, that it’s impossible to at least not find yourself dancing in your seat a bit during its 90-minute run time.

The film delves into several aspects of the trade, including solo aspirations of the singers involved, the importance of their harmonies to pop music history, and how important these mysterious women are to lead singers like Mick Jagger, Sting or Bruce Springsteen, who all appear in interviews to extol the virtues of the backup singers they’ve worked with through the years. The parts of the film exploring the development of backup groups as a must-have on the pop, soul and R&B music of the ’50s and ’60s, from Ray Charles’ Raelettes to Phil Spector’s dictatorial treatment of Darlene Love, was particularly compelling stuff.

Throughout the film, director Morgan Neville (who some might know from his Pearl Jam Twenty film, or Respect Yourself: The STAX Records Story, elicits great stories from performers like Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer, covering everything from their personal ambitions to the sometimes frustrating aspect of always being in the back of the stage, rather than out front. Fischer proves the most interesting; the powerhouse singer is recognized by virtually everyone in the film as a superstar, but she long ago decided she prefers working with groups rather than fronting her own projects.

By the end of Twenty Feet from Stardom, you not only are incredibly educated about the art of backup singing. You are also actively rooting for some of these women to forge forward and earn that stardom that seems so deserving. Love’s arc of Spector plaything to being completely out of music and cleaning houses, to her reemergence as a star and recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shows that stardom is possible for these ladies. Here’s hoping Twenty Feet from Stardom will help them out when it hits theaters this summer.

Remaining screenings:

Jan. 21, 11:45 a.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City

Jan. 25, 8:30 p.m., The Marc, Park City

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