On Thursday, January 17, 2013 I attended the gala Opening Night Documentary, the World Premiere of Twenty Feet from Stardom
at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It was a selection in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
There are essentially two kinds of documentaries. The first turns you on to a story you knew nothing about. The second documents a subject you've heard of -- maybe even have read about or studied -- but uncovers facts that are not only new to you but also put a completely different perspective on what you thought really happened. Call it a revelatory experience. This film from director/producer Morgan Neville is a triumphant example of the latter.
Imagine if hundreds of hit songs by dozens of artists from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and even into this millennium all had the same small group of backup vocalists. Ridiculous, huh? Well, guess what? It's closer to reality than you may think. This is the story documented in Twenty Feet from Stardom
and I was so moved by it that it's hard to contain my enthusiasm for this stunning achievement.
Neville chronicles the musical history laid down by several singers who performed on so many recordings that we've come to know and love, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Patti Austin, and Táta Vega. These women performed on so many hit songs that it could be said they had one of the most unsung (no pun intended) roles to play in the culture of the last 50 years. You may not have heard their names, but you've heard their voices.
The list of artists whose songs they backed up is amazing: under various names with producer Phil Spector (e.g., The Crystals) to The Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, James Taylor, Carole King, Bette Midler, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen, many of whom were interviewed in the film. To look at the list is to hear the soundtrack of your life, whether you're 15 or 85 -- you know these songs. It would be a spoiler to name them, as one of the great joys of viewing this was in finding out exactly what tunes they sang on. So I'll leave that for you to discover.
Twenty Feet from Stardom
was so lovingly made. And the fact that Neville got the clearances which gave him the rights to include the music in the picture is a tribute to the industry's love and respect for these singers. It goes without saying that the soundtrack is, without a doubt, one of the greatest of any film I've ever seen. It has to be, after all. These are the songs we've been listening to fondly for 50 years. When we hear these tunes in our heads, or sing the choruses out loud, many times we're singing the parts these women recorded. The hooks in the harmonies -- the notes we remember -- are very often the riffs and refrains of the backup singers, not the lead vocalist.
No matter what your age, if you have ever listened to music I can guarantee you Twenty Feet from Stardom
will touch you as few films have. To say that this story is long overdue would be an incredible understatement. It's hard to imagine anyone alive today who hasn't been affected by the people who are profiled in this documentary. There's even a good chance you wouldn't be here if not for the voices of these women. Ponder that.
Shortly after the premiere, in one of the first deals of the festival, The Weinstein's Company's multi-platform brand RADiUS-TWC picked up the film for theatrical distribution.