<em>20 Feet from Stardom</em>

20 Feet from Stardom

20 Feet from Stardom

A documentary written and directed by Morgan Neville.

Touches of genius dot this delight-packed documentary concerning the fate of those nearly invisible indispensables, mostly African-American women who sing the “oohs” and “la las” behind the stars, often turning pop ditties into symphonic flights. Some of the fun is almost offhand: In one scene, while the narrator discusses the unsatisfying ultimate plight of backup singers trying out solo careers, the camera shows us a bough on which three birds sit, one apart from the others. The bird flies off, followed by a series of shots of giant wheeling flocks in the sky circling in weird combinations of random movement and cosmic order. It’s almost subliminal, but that’s how thoroughly considered this movie feels. Maybe it seems a trivial topic, but it turns into a complicated meditation on bliss and fame.

The best part, of course, is the footage of singers like Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, and Tata Vega performing while chronicling the time and place where rock music — which one of the singers claims sets her free — rose from gospel and R&B revues like James Brown’s and Ike Turner’s. Complex, interesting testimony comes from the mouths of the stars these women supported — Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Mick Jagger all give appreciative and surprisingly sober estimations of life behind the “talent.” Like an editor or a ghost writer, it’s a job that demands crazy skills, yet forbids recognition if done right. But the documentary’s most powerful moments include newsworthy revelations, like the story of Darlene Love recording “He’s a Rebel” only to lose credit to The Crystals.

If it sounds like a bummer, it’s only momentary disharmonies. Several times these under-credited divas argue that a life of song, or, as one of them puts it, to have your days shaped by melody, is a kind of spiritual victory. And singing onstage with Jagger or David Byrne in Carnegie Hall doesn’t seem completely tragic either.

For showtimes, check the Independent's movie listings, here.

To submit a comment on this article, email or visit our Facebook page. To submit information to a reporter, email

Be succinct, constructive, and relevant to the story. Leaving a comment means you agree to our Discussion Guidelines. We like civilized discourse. We don't like spam, lying, profanity, harassment or personal attacks.

comments powered by Disqus
event calendar sponsored by:

Wife Recalls Husband’s Arrest By ICE Agents in Goleta

She said Jorge was convicted of a DUI 15 years ago but has stayed out of trouble ...

Supervisors Adopt New FEMA Flood Map for Montecito and Carpinteria

It’s not perfect, they say, but it will help people rebuild more safely.

Chumash Leaders Rebury Tuqan Man on San Miguel Island

Tests indicate the remains are between 9,700 and 10,200 years old

Eastside Group Tackles Diabetes

UCSB premed student steps up to fight childhood obesity.

Juana Holzer Testifies Against Ex-Husband

She denied Holzer showed any signs of mental illness during their six-year marriage.