Everyone focuses their attention on the lead singer when attending a concert. People pay to see superstars like Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder in concert, rarely giving much thought to the critical role backing vocalists play on both records and live performances.
Director Morgan Neville has constructed a delightful documentary exploring the world of Rock’s unsung heroes: The backup singers. Focusing on legendary background singers such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer, his thoughtful telling of their careers makes for an enjoyable movie. It comes highly recommend for older music fans wanting to see a new perspective on their favorite hits.
Twenty Feet From Stardom’s title refers to how close a backup singer will get to the main star on stage, often outside the spotlight. Constructed around rare behind-the-scenes footage, newer session recordings, and interviews with a bevy of legendary music figures, the movie should prove irresistible to music lovers. There is a heavy emphasis on the big Rock and Pop hits of the 1960s through the 1980s. Neville has rounded up a deep list of major stars to comment on the role of backing vocalists and their relationship to the song. Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, and Sting all make an appearance, revealing their thoughts on the matter and talking about personal experiences they’ve had with backup singers.
The main focus are the background singers themselves, primarily African-American females who started in the music business at young ages and have made lasting contributions to American Pop music. The early focus is Darlene Love, possibly the most famous backup singer covered in this documentary. She recorded a number of hits as a teenager for Phil Spector, the producer that dominated the ’60s Pop scene with his Wall of Sound recording style. Twenty Feet From Stardom details the dirty tricks he pulled on her and their contentious relationship, as Spector would have Darlene Love record vocals and then give them to another group for release.
While the movie doesn’t sugarcoat these problems, it prefers to use a positive approach in covering her history and the other singers’ careers. Extended scenes are cut around big Rock and Pop hits of the era, from Lou Reed to the Rolling Stones. Another background singer, Merry Clayton, recounts how she recorded her soaring vocals for the Stones’ Gimme Shelter while pregnant. The singers are eager to share personal anecdotes and their perspective on the famous songs they helped shape into form.
Other singers’ careers also get covered in some detail, notably Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill and the Waters family. Some are better than others at sharing their insights into the music and their own lives, though all look quite proud of their accomplishments. The most unique things about Twenty Feet From Stardom are the intimate A cappella sessions, recalling some of these singers’ finer glories. These women are all incredibly talented and probably could have had solo careers. An interesting part of the documentary details some of their aborted attempts to launch solo careers, showing some were happier out of the spotlight as background singers than as the main star.
If one likes Rock and Pop music, this is a fascinating and well-constructed documentary to watch and learn about these barely-known singers. Built on a bedrock of familiar music and big hits, one will come away with a new appreciation for the contributions these backing vocalists have made to our culture.
Twenty Feet From Stardom is a documentary composed of some archival television footage and a heavy reliance on new interviews with talking heads. If one ignores the vintage footage, some of it dating back to the 1950s, this disc would have easily earned a perfect video score. The modern footage, shot in super-clean digital video, generally looks superb at 1080P resolution. The interview with Stevie Wonder looks a bit odd with poor black levels, but every other interview is crystal-clear and utterly pristine.
The transfer is immaculate, bestowed with generous technical parameters and a lack of detrimental processing. Twenty Feet From Stardom runs slightly over ninety minutes, presented in its native 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Encoded in AVC at an average video bitrate of 29.86 Mbps, the video is completely free of artifacts outside of the previously mentioned interview with Stevie Wonder. It handles the grittier concert footage and archival videos, easily replicating their rougher appearance.
The modern interviews are shot in a clean style, usually inside well-lit environments that provide excellent contrast and sharpness. Its razor-sharp quality exudes fine detail and superior delineation, though black levels occasionally float in the picture.
Twenty Feet From Stardom boasts an impressive 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The documentary is built on a bedrock of popular hits from the 1960s through the 1980s, featuring songs from such mega-stars as Ray Charles, Phil Spector, David Bowie, Lou Reed, and the Rolling Stones. Just as impressive are the contemporary A cappella recording sessions held by “backup” singers like Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love, delivered in pristine clarity. The lossless fidelity of this soundtrack is quite stunning and a highly satisfying musical experience.
The 5.1 mix is wonderful at spreading music across the soundstage while delivering the crystalline vocals in pinpoint fashion. It is a powerful mix that sounds great on a high-end and dynamic home theater system. The music sounds as pure and clean as one might hear these Pop songs from their original albums on CD.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included as options. Both display in a white font.
A complete assortment of quality special features are included. The Q&A session is an open and friendly discussion, exposing the close bonds between the backup singers. Nothing feels like it has been left off this Blu-ray, it’s a strong array of bonus material.
Deleted Scenes (29:00 in HD) – The twelve deleted scenes feature extended interview segments and some added session work. Most of this material could have easily made the final cut, but one gets the impression Morgan Neville didn’t want the movie running too long.
The Buddy System (08:52 in HD) – This featurette focuses on the deep camaraderie found in the small community of professional backup singers, including some brief snippets of male vocalists that got excised from the main film.
Times Talks: Q&A With Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Director Morgan Neville (29:24 in HD) – The New York Times hosted an open discussion for the singers on June 11, 2013. The discussion is lively between the old friends, talking about their accomplishments and opening up about the documentary.
Trailer for Cutie and the Boxer (02:16 in HD) – A single trailer precedes the main menu.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.