20 Feet from Stardom
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 24th November 2013
Returning from this year’s film festival, 20 Feet from Stardom is yet another exhilarating music documentary which will have you racing back to your iTunes Store as soon as it’s over.
Have you ever thought about the life of a backing singer? Well, from now on you always will. Morgan Neville’s latest non-fiction feature sneaks in behind the egos of the rockstars who gyrate front of stage to focus on the backing vocalists whose talent is instrumental in fleshing out their sound. Here, these largely unsung heroes of the musical world are finally paid their due as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and old Snake Hips himself speak warmly of their often decades-long relationships with these men and women whose careers have seldom taken off individually, but without whom there could be no stardom.
There are fascinating insights into the exploitation of these singers under producer Phil Spector’s reign in the 1960s, including the tale of Darlene Love who was employed as a “ghost singer” for pop groups that were too busy touring to record a new single. Her chagrin at hearing her voice in a song attributed to The Crystals is very sobering; when you hear her rock out a tune decades later, it feels like an outrageous injustice.
While many of the singers speak of “background” as having been an intended rehearsal for their own projects, the sad fact is that while session groups such as The Blossoms won’t ring a bell, you’ll have heard more from them than you realise. And yet these singers are consistently better than most of our contemporary popstars. 20 Feet from Stardom is a magical documentary showcasing extraordinary talent, great humility and many illuminating stories. As well as those who love music generally, it should be compulsory viewing for anyone with an eye on auditioning for the next series of X-Factor.