20 Feet From Stardom ***1/2 (out of five)
The early money’s on Morgan Neville’s 91 minute 20 Feet From Stardom to win Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars (well, those hosted in January 2014 for movies released this year). To do so, it would mean handing the gold statue to the second music documentary in a row – last year’s recipient was Searching for Sugar Man. 20 Feet From Stardom does not carry the revelatory emotional catharsis of that movie – it doesn’t come close – but it’s fun, interesting, at times revealing, and features snatches of fantastic music and clips.
Purporting to be a sweeping look at background singers, the film actually closely examines a very few, and all American: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, Judith Hill and the Waters Family. While we get to know these subjects well (and they’re all charming, talented and entertaining) it would have been terrific – and worth a longer running time – to get a bigger picture of this artistic subset.
So much time is devoted to Lisa Fischer, in particular, that, charming as she is, I actually started feeling antagonistic toward her: she was chewing up so much screen time (through no fault of her own!) that, I felt, she was denying it to others. We have brief snippets of interviews with non-Americans (and the camera dotes often, lingeringly and lovingly, on one, Australian Jo Lawry) but Neville keeps the focus tight on his main subjects, attempting to create a greater conversation about race in America.
The film is too light-hearted for Big Issues, and the race talk never leads to much. But we get some very funny – and sometimes touching – stories along the way, and hear some astounding voices. It’s not the definitive look at background singers – a good mini-series for television might be the place for that – but it’s certainly entertaining.