Cinema Review: 20 Feet from Stardom

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DIR: Morgan Neville  • PRO: Gil Friesen, Morgan Neville, Caitrin Rogers • DOP: Nicola Marsh, Graham Willoughby • ED: Douglas Blush, Kevin Klauber, Jason Zeldes • CAST: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer

Winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom provides an insight into what the music industry (we’re told) considers the unsung heroes of pop-music; the backing-singers. From the Rock and Roll era through to the modern, the film features candid interviews and reunions from many of the more famous backing singers and details their careers. There will be laughing, there will be crying and there will of course be some singing. Additionally some more famous faces pop up from time to time to chime in with their own insights; Mick Jagger, Sting and Stevie Wonder to name but a few.

It’s difficult to summarise the film beyond that. Essentially what you’ll get is a succession of singers from roughly the ’60s-’80s who will describe how they got their break, how well they knew various famous people and how important they think what they do is. It’s an odd recurring motif of the film that all these people have a bizarre reverence for what they do. It’s fine to be proud of your work but this takes it to a new level. They actually make it sound like what they’re doing is transcendent and affects the world when in reality it’s just singing pop-music, and they aren’t even the leads. They also try and tie what they do into various social movements like the civil rights and women’s lib movements. Again though, they hugely overestimate the value of what they’re doing and don’t even try to justify it. Merely by the fact that most of the backing-singers were African-American women they assume they were, by proxy, contributing to these movements while clearly demonstrating they were just continuing to do a job which they’d been doing since before the movements gained momentum. It’s quite strange.

After about an hour of that, it looks like the film might be about to affect one of the most drastic tonal shifts you could hope for and plunge right into a deconstruction of the lie that American society sells, particularly in the sense of the ‘American Dream’. One of the singers talks about how after years of success, she found herself cleaning houses and hearing her own songs playing on the radio of the house she was cleaning. She questions why she wasn’t still successful, how this could happen even though she believed in herself. The stage is set for the moment this film could turn itself around and became a scathing commentary of society. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.) Instead, she insists that if she has a voice for singing pop-music, then clearly a higher power wants her singing pop-music so sing pop-music she shall because fame is, essentially, owed to her. Wow. So instead of this being a damning indictment of the American Dream logic, it is instead a perfect example of the attitude of entitlement that it breeds. A whole ninety-minutes of it.

And lo in the final third do its true motivations reveal themselves. As Sting is rambling on with yet more pseudo-spiritual waffle, he begins to talk about how modern pop acts lack the heart of the good-ol’ days. Modern acts can attain fame too easily and thus they won’t feel as ‘fulfilled’. Sorry Mr Sting, just to clarify, we are still talking about pop music, right? Not the ethics of scientific endeavour or something that would vaguely justify using the sentence you just uttered? So yes, in truth the only reason this film exists is to give a platform from which numerous of the old guard of the music industry, and a few of their famous friends for good measure, can complain about ‘those darn kids’ and how ‘back in my day…’ etc. Older people of increasingly dwindling relevance in the industry just want to complain about the current, popular people who are making more money than they are, so they attack them on the only high-ground they believe they still own; a moral/spiritual one. The moral high-ground of pop-music; just let that sink in.

The funny thing is, despite the amount of bile this film is drawing out of me, it’s not even particularly bad. Admittedly the interviewees are across the board, in-your-face and almost aggressively ‘bubbly’ but that in and of itself isn’t something to be held against the film. Some of us just have low tolerances for such personalities. The most maddening and infuriating quality about the film is just how bland it is. For all the gag-inducing, saccharine talk about how ‘real’ music from back in the day had heart and soul in contrast to modern music, which has lost its edge and identity, yadda yadda; this entire film is just as clean, inoffensive and disposably hollow as the modern pop music it’s decrying. It actually makes a lot of sense that it won the Oscar; this is the exact sort of Oscar-bait that everyone generally complains is clogging up the Best Picture list which, sure, will likely be crowd pleasing, but is just so neutered and designed by committee that it has little reason to have been made and even less to say.

On the whole then it’s a clean, perfectly watchable, produced-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life, jukebox of a film that feels, more than anything else, like an extended making-of feature from a concert DVD. It’ll feature a lot of songs that you know, show you a bit about how they were made and then let some safe-bet celebrities say some pointless, ‘inspirational’ nonsense that’s thinner in substance than the popcorn its target-audience will be munching through while they idly tap their feet. Utter drivel that is occasionally infuriating, persistently saccharine and genuinely (in the true sense of what the word actually means) pretentious.

Richard Drumm

12A (See IFCO for details)
90 mins

20 Feet from Stardom is released on 28th March 2014

20 Feet from Stardom – Official Website

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