20 Feet From Stardom is an extended hosanna to backup singers and the joyful noise they make. To chart the creative contributions of so-often-anonymous session vocalists, filmmaker Morgan Neville -- a longtime music-doc director whose CV includes TV biographies of Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash and Stax Records -- samples six decades of American pop-music history, highlighting doo-wop groups, producer Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, the politically charged rock 'n' roll years, and the age of Auto-Tune, where demand for backup singers has waned considerably.
Neville collared some very big names to sit for his camera -- Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting, to name a few -- but it's the non-household names that hold our attention. Like Darlene Love, whose powerhouse vocals defined songs as diverse as "That's Life," "Monster Mash" and "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)." Or Merry Clayton, who supplied the epic wail in the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Both women attempted solo careers but didn't achieve stardom. Blame the limited imagination of the industry ("There's only one Aretha"), the fickleness of fate, or mismanagement. Spector signed Love and was, according to her, the instrument of her ruin. He might worry over his unflattering portrayal here if that second-degree murder conviction hadn't tanked his reputation already.
Crap pay and chronic lack of credit dogged all of the backup singers in this documentary, while drugs were the special undoing of some. 20 Feet From Stardom doesn't shy away from the harder truths of the industry, but it goes down easily. It's stylishly assembled, spryly executed and satisfyingly arced to end in triumph. And the spotlight hasn't dimmed yet: Since the film's premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, a number of its subjects have enjoyed a boost in recognition, which should continue with the recent release of a soundtrack that packages classic tunes with new songs recorded especially for the film.
The new material, which is threaded throughout the film in beautifully shot in-studio sequences, nails what's so great -- and so feel-good -- about 20 Feet From Stardom. It celebrates the unheralded individual and the special alchemy that happens when many voices blend together as one.