Twenty Feet From Stardom (GFF 2014)

Twenty Feet From StardomThe music industry has changed drastically over the years, and not just for the best-selling artists and bands. Whereas once back-up singers were an industry staple, harmonising for everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Stevie Wonder, these days with the rise of talent shows and independent singer-songwriters they are few and far between. Nevertheless, some have remained prolific throughout, with the likes of Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and The Waters Family having adapted to survive; for most, however, particularly those who have pursued stardom of their own, they’ve found themselves road-blocked, side-tracked or victims of their own success.

Of all the films screening at Glasgow Film Festival this year, Twenty Feet From Stardom is perhaps the most likely to find mainstream success. It has it all: larger than life characters, eminently hummable harmonies and stories that you genuinely can’t believe you haven’t heard before. Morgan Deville’s documentary, featuring input from Sheryl Crowe, Mick Jagger and Bette Midler in addition to the backing vocalists mentioned above, is an exploration of celebrity, passion and the music industry that is as remarkable for its many success stories as it is for its tales of grief and sorrow.

Since their heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, in which The Blossoms lived large and their peers were signing contracts with major studios, backing singers have become something of a dying breed. Having sung with the greats and toured with some of the biggest bands of all time, many wanted to pursue solo careers, convinced that they had what it takes to make it on their own. Some like Táta Vega and Lisa Fisher released records, though they weren’t all well received, but many found themselves shelved or dropped from their labels. Nowadays, The Waters’ contribute vocals to film soundtracks (singing songs for The Lion King or providing animal noises for Avatar), while others have had to pursue alternative careers.

Vega ruminates on her struggles for success, and concludes that she was perhaps one of the lucky ones — had she become a worldwide sensation, like Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston, she observes, she might not have been alive to make the documentary. The spotlight seems irresistible to most, however, and some of the close-calls included in the film are absolutely heart-breaking to hear. Darlene Love certainly hasn’t had an easy time of it — her attempts to start a solo career hit all kinds of obstacles as her songs were credited to other people (often The Crystals), she was regularly rebuffed for not being famous enough, and when finally she did sign a fresh contract it was bought back by original manager Phil Spector. Eventually reduced to cleaning houses for money, she decided to give it one last shot when her song ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ came on her employer’s radio.

Twenty Feet From Stardom may not be the most cinematic documentary of recent years (you almost expect to hear a television announcer speaking over the closing credits), but thanks to Neville’s all-star cast of collaborators and a sing-along soundtrack it is almost certainly one of the most entertaining. What’s more, there is towards the end an infectious sense of catharsis, acceptance and celebration, and you’ll leave with a better appreciation of an unsung part of the music industry, and wishing everyone involved all the luck in the world.



About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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