Arts & Events

Film Review: Redemption Song: 20 Feet from Stardom--Now playing at the Shattuck Landmark

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Thursday July 18, 2013 - 09:40:00 PM

The word is getting out. Morgan Neville's Sundance Festival stunner, 20 Feet from Stardom, is the must see/must feel movie of the summer. Even on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, I found the Landmark's screening room packed and the management promising refunds if there were no seats left. 

How engaging is this movie? Well, this is the first time I was so mesmerized by a film that I absolutely forgot to touch my popcorn. 

20 Feet from Stardom is a film for music lovers, rock fans, feminists, black activists, romantics, lefties and, generally, anybody with a working pair of eyes and a good set of ears. The audience at the Tuesday screening frequently burst into knowing laughter, broke into wild applause or just gasped astonished "Wows!" 

Director Morgan Neville's moving movie is a celebration of the human voice, a salute to resilience of the human spirit and a hard lesson in the unpredictable nature of the Fame Game. 

In a quick nod to history, the film demonstrates what a difference a decade made. Before the Sixties smashed headlong into the country's prevailing conservative, cultural piñata, a peak TV musical experience was a relaxed (i.e., "near-comotose") Perry Como blandly singing alongside three pert but zombie-like ladies. These network-approved white trios weren't really "backup singers," we are told. These gals were referred to as "readers" because they rehearsed their tunes clutching reams of sheets music. They performed their lines with cool precision, never once daring to lift so much as a foot off the floor. 

But when the revolutionary tides of the times began to flood the airwaves (radio first, then TV) with the Gideon's trumpet of Gospel abandon, the tumult unleashed a see-change and a hear-icane that changed the musical weather map forever. 

The newcomers were full of stomping, raw energy. These lads and ladies didn't need to bring along sheets of music: the music was already in their heads, their hearts, their souls. These were backup singers who understood how to pour gasoline on a song and tear up a stage. 

It is surprising to learn that the unheralded voices behind the megahits of Ray Charles, Ike Turner, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Sting and so many other everlasting hits, belonged to a small group of anonymous "divas." 

20 Feet from Stardom does long-overdue justice to these women, the astonishing talents that rocked the music of the Sixties, the Seventies and beyond -- Patti Austen, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, and Tata Vega. 


Neville's film underscores the fact that there are two paths in the world of power-rock. You can be part of a collective of back-up signers -- and that can be quite enough -- but, if you've got a certain hunger, there is the greater lure of that single spotlight that anoints the soloist. As director Neville puts it: "It's that tension between the 'we' and the 'I' that all of them do a dance with throughout their lives." 

Allegiance to the group is a beautiful thing but singing directly to an audience of thousands is transcendental. It's like the search for perfect love. And, too often, the search proves disappointing. 

These are women of awesome talent who know they possess phenomenal vocal "gifts." But despite producing solo albums and mounting sold-out solo tours, their careers inexplicably spun out in shallow waters. 

20 Feet from Stardom bubbles over with humor and occasional notes of pathos. It is heartbreaking when a singer recalls hearing a recording of her performance credited to another singer (Thank you, record producer Phil Spector). Another singer, fallen on hard times, recounts how she found herself listening to one of her hit songs playing on a radio as she did maid's work -- cleaning the bathroom in the sprawling home of a white employer. 

With this film, director Neville has given these extraordinary performers exactly what they so desperately sought and richly deserved -- national recognition as incomparable stars, worthy of sharing space within the constellation that includes Aretha, Ella, Etta, Nina, Diana, and Beyonce. 

Finally, their names are receiving the mainstream attention they have so long deserved. So grab a friend, buy a ticket (forget the popcorn) and put your hands together for the "divas."