This review was originally (supposed to be) published as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 SXSW Film Conference.
It’s tempting to boast how Morgan Neville’s new documentary, “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” features candid interviews with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, Mick Jagger, Sting and Stevie Wonder, but its subjects actually include Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Darlene Love -- the music industry’s pioneering background singers.
Although director Neville (“Troubadours”) splits his focus between half a dozen subjects, Love is arguably his favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. A member of the Blossoms, the first-ever black session group, Love’s gospel roots -- many a background singer admits to being a pastor’s daughter -- and initial role as eye candy on stage paved the way for younger artists such as Hill. Love has personality to spare and plenty of stories to tell, whether it’s about collaborating with Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones or butting heads with producer Phil Spector in her pursuit of a solo career. In 2011, she’d finally see an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her efforts, and the appreciation espoused from the main acts listed above suggests that the honor was a well-earned one.
The power of collaboration combating the allure of the spotlight is a recurring theme among “Stardom’s” other subjects, and to see their contributions finally given some due attention, whether by the industry or this film, makes for an altogether irresistible experience. Just when it seems that “Gimme Shelter” has been all played out, the showcase of Clayton's raw vocals from recording studio sessions suddenly gives the tune a renewed vigor, and to learn of the Waters family’s participation in everything from the opening scene of “The Lion King” to the creature cries of “Avatar” demonstrates just how far these unsung talents have extended themselves into our cultural consciousness, which in turn only makes a document such as this seem that much more vital for simply existing.
Neville’s assembly of it all does feel just a bit too calculated to suggest a darkness before the dawn when discussing so many failed solo careers in the film’s home stretch before sending us out, of course, on a song. However, between the welcome anecdotes, the wealth of archival footage on display, the well-polished production values and an inevitably remarkable soundtrack spanning the greatest decades of American rock and soul, “Stardom” mostly hits the right notes.
"Twenty Feet From Stardom" will be released on June 14, 2013.