Ben Oliver

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20 Feet From Stardom

Meet the unsung heroes behind the greatest music of our time.
26 April 2014

My little Oscar binge rumbles on with this look into some of the greatest backing singers ever lived, and their careers.

Neville comes out all guns blazing with an opening interview from Bruce Springsteen; this documentary doesn’t skimp on original material from people that count. He’s also managed to get Mick Jagger to talk about ‘Gimme Shelter’, and he got the backing singer on that track to listen to her work again. We see live recordings of tracks, studio sessions & lots of interviews. A great deal of work went into this and it shows.

Making it all hang together is another feat altogether, and that’s where 20 Feet from Stardom really triumphs. We never lose sight of who’s talking, and who they worked with. When they discuss solo careers, it’s well presented and unpretentious. It’s small touches in post production that make this stuff work, but it’s the differece between a good film and a great one.

What also struck me was the knack the film has for answering the viewer’s questions. Wondering what song they’re talking about? They play it. What’s the backing vocal like on track X? They isolate it and play it. What does person Y think about it? They get a soundbite. No stone has been left un-turned, it’s very satisfying.

It feels like there’s a lack of over-arching message to the film. It’s a minor critique because I think letting the material they have gathered live and breathe on the screen is more important than forcing any kind of narrative. Some people want to be stars, others don’t. It’s not black and white and Neville doesn’t shy away from this fact.

Things get a little repetitive at times but all in all this is a treasure trove of gems, old and new. Not to be missed.