20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s documentary about backup singers, deserves an objective review because without any qualifications it is the finest film of 2013 thus far. It channels its subjects’ greatest strengths—big wind, an uncanny ear, a fastidious work ethic, a knack for knowing when to sing and when to stop, and an indomitable spirit—and in doing so pulls back the curtain on a rarely considered world, which is the very best function a documentary can fulfill. What’s more, by suggesting with an infectious, clear-eyed joy how this world connects to everything else, it fulfills one of the very best functions of any movie.
But part of what makes this film so extraordinary is that it summons really personal responses. I’ve seen it twice so far and during both screenings the audiences—full of professional critics!—spontaneously burst into applause and tears more than once. God knows I cried through both showings.
At this point I’ll come clean with my own association with the material. My father, an atheist-Jewish computer science professor hailing from lily-white Massachusetts, has had a lifelong romance with R&B, soul, doo-wop, gospel, blues. Certainly he’s not the only Jewish man in his generation to evince a passion for what’s still sometimes known as black music (I won’t even get into how complicated that is) but his commitment has proven steadfast and often endearing. In our family a Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin album was always spinning on the turntable or pouring out of the car speakers. And at every opportunity he sang those songs himself, warbling in his cracked, earnest falsetto while I did backup.
He taught me young. Starting around 5 or 6, I learned to listen closely so that whenever he’d break into a lead I could chime in with the right oohs, ahhs, babies. I’d croon “No, no, no” while he’d howl Frankie Lymon’s “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.” He’d sing “Respect” and I’d add, “Just a little bit,” just like Aretha’s sisters did. Did I want to sing lead? Not really. I was a daddy’s girl who was fiercely proud to support him as he sang his heart out. But as I began to come into a limelight of my own—around age 11 I started doing some TV spots—my father and I began to part ways. I couldn’t help but observe he preferred to sing lead in his own house, and from this I learned the classic lessons of the backup singer: that sometimes it was better to blend than to shine, that adaptation was necessary for survival, that you had to know when to cut your losses, and that I loved the music for its own sake, regardless of whether I could gain any rewards by doing so.
So I get backup singers. And the dynamite news is that Morgan Neville does, too. He doesn’t trip over himself as he carefully builds the arcs of these individual women’s lives into something that is, fittingly, bigger than the sum of its parts. Starting with a credit sequence in which he slyly reappropriates artist John Baldessari’s work by applying dots to the lead singers in vintage R&B images, Neville draws upon whatever works best to tell this ultimate underdog story. He enlists some of the biggest names in the music business—Sting (poncey as ever), Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Freaking Jagger—to lay out the enormity of these women’s contributions to the twin canons of rock and roll and R&B. Wisely, though, he mostly lets the women speak for themselves. Continue Reading →