20 feet from Stardom

20 Feet From Stardom Director/Writer: Morgan Neville

Talisha’s verdict: 4 1/2 Stars

The backing vocalist documentary 20 Feet From Stardom had a hard task on its hands. The film is much needed as more singers are choosing to enter the industry now than ever before, but director Morgan Neville and Producer Gil Friesen had to entice both seasoned vocalists and general music lovers  to their film by focusing on the story rather than on pure singer ‘jargon’.

Emphasis is on the American scene, where between the 50’s and 80’s, backing vocalists took a greater role in the artist line-up and were regularly featured by name, for instance Martha and The Vandellas or Tina Turner and The Ikettes. During this period, by contrast, the UK was more focused on solo artists and bands without backing vocals. The documentary depicts the use of backing vocalists as a trend, one that faded during the early 90’s but is now on the rise again, especially in the UK.

Highlighted are the adversities backing vocalists face, primarily how they must fulfil a background role whilst dreaming of standing in the spotlight themselves. Those who pursue the backing vocalist route give a tremendous amount of energy and dedication to the job, ultimately sacrificing their personal singing goals and  ambitions.

Though the craft of backing vocals does help feed the other, if you are working for someone else then that job’s requirements must take precedence over your own style and artistry.   This can be heartbreaking and frustrating, something many vocalists can empathise with.

Somewhat unrepresented in the film is the importance of practicing your craft. The ‘older’ generation of backing vocalists talk about singing in church and then suddenly singing for famous artists, painting a Hollywood-like overnight success story. Many new singers who are looking at this film to show them a way onto this career path will be disappointed to find it does not address this. Additionally, the film does not mention famous examples of artists who had previously sung backing vocals and became successful solo artists such as Sheryl Crow, Elton John, Mariah Carey, Shania Twain and Luther Vandross – Vandross is mentioned in the film but only as the star, so we get the impression those ‘20 Feet’ are an impossible dream, rather than acknowledging these stars have managed to prove that idea wrong.

In spite of this I would highly recommended the film. Viewers will come away with a greater respect for the ladies and gentlemen dressed in black at the back. I, for one, am excited to see which backing vocalists of today will become the stars of tomorrow.


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