Sundance review: 'Twenty Feet from Stardom' one of the festival's best

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Jan. 21 2013 10:15 a.m. MST

"Twenty Feet from Stardom"

Graham Willoughby

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Chances are just about everyone has sung along with their music at one point or another, but try naming your favorite backup singer — or any backup singer, for that matter. Drawing a blank?

That’s what veteran music documentarian Morgan Neville set out to change with his latest film, “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” which premiered on opening night of this year’s Sundance Film Festival to multiple standing ovations.

One of a handful of music-themed documentaries at Sundance this year, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” shines a long-overdue spotlight on the singers whose thankless job is to elevate other people’s music while disappearing into the background.

And they do it in spite of the fact that any one of them could sing circles around most of the artists they back.

Through interviews with some of the most respected names in the industry, including A-listers like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting, as well as the backup singers themselves — the unheralded movers and shakers of rock ’n’ roll and R&B like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, among others — “Twenty Feet from Stardom” makes an invaluable contribution to musical history.

Audiences are given an unprecedented look at this highly insular world where “The Blend,” an almost spiritual state of vocal harmony, is valued above all else.

What’s more, Neville shows how these women, many of whom are African American, helped shape the course of music throughout the 20th century, especially during seminal periods like the civil rights movement.

However, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” never feels like a history lesson. Even with all the information he crams into it, Neville keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, making it one of the most entertaining documentaries you’re likely to see.

A big part of that is its fantastic soundtrack. If you weren’t a fan of musicians like Luther Vandross, Joe Cocker and Ike and Tina Turner beforehand (and, of course, the talented backup singers that made their music what it was), you might be after you walk out still humming their tunes.

Ultimately, though, what makes “Twenty Feet from Stardom” easily one of the best films at Sundance this year is the backup singers themselves. Just because they’re not household names doesn’t mean these women don’t have big personalities, and listening to them tell their life stories is both fascinating and, at times, heartbreaking.

One of the highlights of the entire film, though, comes about halfway through when Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Merry Clayton, who also sang backup on songs like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” recount the late-night recording session that resulted in one of the Rolling Stones’ most iconic tracks, “Gimme Shelter.” Even non-Stones fans might feel a shiver run down their spines listening to Clayton’s virtuoso performance.

Like the talented vocalists it profiles, Neville’s film deserves the attention of every music lover — not to mention anyone who just appreciates a good documentary.

“Twenty Feet from Stardom” offers a rare glimpse at an unfortunately overlooked part of music history, and it does it in a way that is as entertaining and engaging as the best Hollywood movies.

Luckily, if you aren’t able to catch it at Sundance, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” has already been picked up for distribution — in fact, it was the first movie purchased during this year’s festival — so expect it in theaters or on DVD/Blu-ray sometime in the near future.

Parents should take note that “Twenty Feet from Stardom” has not yet been rated by the MPAA. Although its content is generally mild and is mostly suitable for a broad audience, there is one extremely brief instance of partial nudity and some mild language.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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