20 Feet from Stardom is mesmerizing, a documentary that cares about people that the world doesn’t seem to acknowledge. Back-up singers dominate the musical landscape, filling out every stage behind the lead singers and the main instrumentals. They’re just as important, though, sometimes rounding out the vocalist while other times dominating a track and proving their worth. Most of these singers are African-American as well, which doesn’t help matters considering minorities are typically ignored in music. The emergence of soul and R&B in the ’60s and ’70s certainly turned things around, and singers like Darlene Love began to showcase themselves while the whole world paid attention to the person in front.
What’s so remarkable about this joyous documentary is its celebration of how talented these singers are, not wallowing in their pasts or making their lives seem less great than legends. These are singers who have just as much talent, if not more, than people like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin. Many of the singers showcased in this film sing behind those legendary vocalists, but the key to all of them is that they are loved by their higher-ups. They are respected and treated more so as true singers than they were in any other time in history, and now they’re getting their chance to shine.
Hearing “Gimme Shelter” with the female vocalist being showcased on screen gave me chills, because that’s one of the most affecting pieces of vocal work I’ve heard in rock-n-roll. These aren’t simply dancers in the background in scandalous clothing, although showing them with Tina Turner certainly makes it seem that way. But just like her, these are titans that have voices so much stronger than they appear; they aren’t eye-candy, they aren’t lesser people, but they are singers. Their voices are pure talent, not shrouded by instruments, and these women have long been ignored. The movie doesn’t wallow in self-pity, one of its most beautiful traits; it’s genuinely affecting.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)