Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let's Review Something: 20 Feet From Stardom

Have you ever put on an album by one of your favorite artists and found yourself reading through the linear notes trying to find out who was singing the chorus line you love so much?  I’ve found myself doing that, wondering why there wasn’t a ‘feat. So-and-so’ following the track title.  I’ve even Googled songs before, trying to find out what singer was lending their vocals to a particular track to no avail.  But, after watching ’20 Feet From Stardom’ I understand.

The ones with the biggest voices have, until this point in time, have had no voice.

When looking through the roster of singers associated with this documentary, one may instantly gravitate towards names like Ray Charles, David Bowie, Sheryl Crow and Sting, but when you’re finished watching this film, names like Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Darlene Love will mean more to you.  In fact, the minute the documentary was through I found myself downloaded ‘How Can I Ease the Pain’ by Lisa Fischer, who has one of the most impressive voices I’ve ever heard in my life.  Honestly, she’s up there with Mariah and Whitney as one of the best voices ever to grace the world.  Listening to her sing and realizing that no one knows who she is because she disappeared from center stage so quickly is the sad reality of this industry.

And yet, watching this documentary lets you know that Lisa had a lot to do with that as well.

’20 Feet From Stardom’ takes a look at the voices behind the artists we love.  These are the legendary talents within their inner circle that are not household names and are pretty much forgotten by anyone who isn’t hiring them to make them sound better.  Sting certainly knows who these artists are.  Sting has had Lisa as his dominant backing vocalist for years.  She tours with him, records with him, has a great friendship with him.  He knows who she is.

Why don’t we?

As a whole, ’20 Feet From Stardom’ is an informative and engaging documentary.  That being said, it isn’t without its flaws.  For me, the point of ’20 Feet From Stardom’ takes a while to establish itself.  It was one of those films that about halfway through I thought to myself, ‘what is this trying to tell me?’  The constant shifting from one artist to another made the focus seem uneven to a degree and kept me from truly connecting as a whole with the film, and while I know that this is a documentary on a subject and not a singular biopic, I really would have loved to see some of these women fleshed out a little more.  Lisa is by far the most humble, and to me the most talented (and the documentary seems to think so as well) but Merry Clayton’s story was truly heartbreaking, and watching her shift from this seemingly self-absorbed tortured artist to a real human being was a highlight of the film, and something I really wish had been worked with more.

I would blame the editing for some of my issues here.  I found the snippets of interviews used to be uneven.  Some of the film feels very self-indulgent, and like I said, for a large portion of the film, Merry Clayton comes across like a conceited and self-absorbed woman.  She’s not appealing at all.  But as the film progresses and we get to her full story (and failed success) you can see a real woman emerge in the tearful nostalgia of it all. 

I also found the entire Waters Family to be the most obnoxious and annoying individuals I’ve seen in film this year.

Still, the impact of the film cannot be faked.  You begin to feel for these ‘voices’, and it raises awareness for the hardworking people in show business who don’t get the recognition they deserve.  Watching them talk about how they were worked out of record deals and taken advantage of for the ‘greater good’ (I’m looking at you Phil Spector) was upsetting.  That being said, I’m still left wondering what this documentary was supposed to tell me.  When you have someone like Lisa Fischer actively working against being famous, I wonder why this documentary seems so focused on telling me that she should be.

But if Judith Hill gets a record deal out of this whole experience, then it was worth it.

I'd give this a solid B.  It's an informative look at a side of the industry we don't see very often, but it needed a tighter focus and a better edit (and more keener eye).  Looks like this is going to win the Oscar though, which I'm alright with (if it prevents 'The Act of Killing' from winning gold), even though I'd prefer something like 'Cutie and the Boxer' to upset.


  1. I feel like I should watch this since it will probably win the Oscar. Though, I'll be sure to watch Cutie and the Boxer first if I do. ;)

    1. Yeah, this is probably winning the Oscar, but this category is a lot like Foreign Film in that there are shocks and surprises often, so I wouldn't count out something like 'The Square' making a mad dash for Oscar gold.