Tuesday, June 17, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer from 20 Feet from Stardom
Photo Courtesy TwentyFeetFromStardom.com

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Documentary, Features

It has long been a truism that if you are having difficulty picking the winner of either the Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject in your Oscar pool, choose the film that deals with the subject of the Holocaust or AIDS.  Rather than judging the film that best documents its subject, the Academy has a tendency to reward the film that tackles the most serious subject.

For this reason, it has been surprising that the Academy has bestowed its Best Documentary Feature award to crowd-pleasing documentaries about musicians for the past two years, first to Searching for Sugar Man and then to 20 Feet From Stardom.  While I thought that Searching for Sugar Man was an enjoyable but underwhelming documentary and that the Oscar should have gone to David France's How to Survive a Plague, 20 Feet From Stardom is an absolutely wonderful documentary that is much deeper and it first appears to be.

20 Feet from Stardom Poster
Photo Courtesy of TwentyFeetFromStardom.com
Director Morgan Neville, a veteran of documentaries on the subject of music (he has made documentaries about Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and Stax Records), both follows the current lives and documents the long careers of several of the most notable backup singers in the history of popular music, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Taga Vega, and several others.  These women, though largely unknown to the majority of music lovers, have played essential roles in some of the most significant records ever made, with perhaps the best example being Merry Clayton's searing vocals on "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones.  Neville documents how these women came to become unknown legends of the music industry, the significant challenges they faced as they grew older and the music industry evolved, and celebrates their accomplishments.

But while the film at first seems to be merely an attempt to rectify the lack of attention these women have received by celebrating their contributions to music on film, Morgan Neville uses this story to explore the idea of how our dreams evolve as we get older, and how we either adapt or fail to respond to the unexpected directions our lives takes us.  None of the women profiled in this film set out to be backup singers, and each did so only to support themselves while they continued to seek their own stardom.  As the title suggests, these women stood a mere twenty feet from the stars they sang behind, but so much more separated them than physical distance.  For whatever reason, these women never became the superstars that they believed they would become, and it certainly wasn't due to a lack of talent, as they were more talented than many of the stars they supported.  As Sting explains in the film, to become a star requires more than just talent and hard work, and there is some essence that these women just did not have.

As their own attempts at stardom faltered, some of the women were able to accept this about themselves and were content to be great backup singers, while others could never give up on their dream of becoming true stars.  Few people achieve exactly what they dreamed they would when they were young, and we all to some degree accept unexpected roles for ourselves and must decide how we will respond.  While few of us achieve our exact dreams, few get even 20 feet from these dreams, and what these women accomplished and the legacies they made for themselves are truly incredible.

20 Feet from Stardom is a celebration of the amazing careers of these women, even if these careers are far different from what they dreamed of for themselves.


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