Neville has assembled a host of ebullient and candid singers to help him chart the rise of backup artists. All hailing from church backgrounds, the focus of the pic is on a handful of female, African-Americans; Darlene Love, Táta Vega, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer. When each interviewee is first introduced they’re accompanied by a list of people they’ve worked with, and it becomes clearer and clearer just how much of an influence they had on popular music in the 20th century. From David Bowie to Ray Charles to Michael Jackson, their impact has been widely felt, and the singers heartily reminisce on the diverse opportunities that were afforded to them. Accentuating the importance of backing singers are sound bites from contemporaries such as Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger.
It helps that Neville knows when to let the music do the talking, and it’s in the nostalgia-inducing melodies that Twenty Feet From Stardom is at its toe-tapping best. Archived tracks, rarely seen video footage, and snippets of the ladies in action in present-day are all immensely enjoyable to behold, and are most definitely worth revisiting in the soundtrack.
There are admittedly one or two threads which could have done with some more screen time; most notably, the racism and sexism of the times is only hinted at. Even so, Twenty Feet From Stardom is an illuminating and hugely entertaining documentary with important, far-reaching messages to boot. It may have taken a while, but they’ve finally made it to centre stage.