20 Feet from Stardom – Movie review

Morgan Neville takes us on a musical journey into the largely untold talent and dreams of the world’s most gifted singers who have helped mold the sound of the most successful bands and artists of the 21st century. Backing vocalists who, despite bringing to life some of the greatest songs to have ever graced our charts, homes and hearts, have remained largely unknown. That is, until now.

The film quite aptly opens up with the controversial lyrics from Walk on the Wild Side followed by wonderfully rich vocals from backing singers, Karen Friedman, Dari Lalou and Casey Synge, “And the coloured girls go do doo doo, do doo…” before ingeniously immersing us into a compendium of life stories belonging to some of the greatest voices that have ever existed. If you have ever hummed along to the magical blend of harmonies in Motown hits such as Lean on Me or been swept away by the amazing backing vocals in rock songs like Gimme Shelter, then you will know what I am writing about.

Following the behind the scene lives of backup singers, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega and Jo Lawry, Neville invites them to open up to us about their passion for music. Gradually, we become enlightened as to what spurs their motivation for singing, despite being intrinsic to yet never reaching the same height of success and fame as the acts they support. We also hear testimonies from pop giants such as Bette Midler, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger honouring the great talents of these powerhouse vocalists whom they have enlisted to help identify their own sound in popular culture.

There is a wonderful, wide genre-ranging soundtrack to this inspiring and touching documentary, which will carry you on a wave of musicality and, with it, a crescendo of emotions. Neville will have you bopping along to A Fine Boy and, moments later, gaping in amazement at the haunting and mesmerising vocals of legendary singer Lisa Fischer.

This documentary is well worthy of its Oscar award and a five-star rating. It is a fitting accolade to the mostly unrecognised talent it seeks to give recognition to and, by the end, it leaves you contemplating the forever-resonating words: “You have to share your gifts and go out into the world.” Perhaps we can all learn something from these inspirational voices.