Twenty Feet from Stardom


Sweet harmony personified.

Sweet harmony personified.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Lynn Mabry, Claudia Lennear, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin, Gloria Jones, Janice Pendarvis, Stevvi Alexander. Directed by Morgan Neville

Florida Film Festival 2013

We all know the stars. Their faces, their voices, their music. We can hum their songs in our sleep. We don’t always get the full components of what goes into that classic music however. We rarely know who the backup singers are.

This documentary aims to rectify that. Focusing mainly on four African-American women, the movie looks at the importance of back-up singers to popular music of the last say, 50 years or so. There’s Darlene Love, for example, who not only sang leads on a lot of classic songs (“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” comes to mind) but her voice can be heard on some of Phil Spector’s classic hits – as part of The Blossoms, an early girl group she fronted, her powerful voice decorated some of the classic songs of the ’60s. Still, she’s primarily known as playing Danny Glover’s wife on the Lethal Weapon films.

Merry Clayton, like many of the great backup singers the daughter of a preacher, is perhaps best remembered as the female voice on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter” for which she was awakened in the middle of the night to do and sang in pajamas and curlers.  She’s sang for some of the biggest names in music and while her face may not be familiar, I guarantee you’ve heard her voice many times.

Lisa Fisher may have the most amazing voice of them all. While much in demand (she has been the Stones’ touring backup vocalist for more than 20 years) she has for the most part shunned a solo career (although she won a Grammy for her lone solo album). She prefers to sing for the simple joy of singing, preferring to remain in the background rather than pursuing the solo career she more than has the talent to achieve.

Judith Hill famously sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial service and is heavily featured in the documentary of the rehearsals for his final tour that never happened due to his untimely death. She writes and performs not only for herself but for other big stars and recently became a contestant on the singing competition The Voice which I would count her a heavy favorite to win it all.

These women and many others like them (and a few men too) may not be well known but they are absolute titans in the industry. The respect that is paid them by the stars who are interviewed is palpable and as is mentioned by Claudia Lennear during the film, most people when they’re singing along to a song are singing what the backup singers are singing.

I will confess to having been a music critic for nearly a dozen years in the San Francisco Bay Area and like most people – critics included – I kind of took the contributions of these amazing singers for granted. One of the best thing this movie does is break down the importance of the background singers in the song. One stark illustration of this is found when ”Gimme Shelter” is played with the tracks removed one at a time until only Clayton’s vocal track remains. It’s a very simple yet effective reminder of the power of the human voice.

The human connection through music is universal. There are those who feel a particular passion for it and have the talent and the desire to express themselves through their music. Some of them make it and some of them don’t regardless of how good they are – it’s largely a matter of luck and timing. For my money, regardless of the fame and fortune these ladies and others like them have gathered (or lack thereof) they are every one of them stars in my book. If you love rock and roll or hell, any sort of pop music, you owe it to yourself to see this. It will change your outlook on music – in a good way – forever.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and spiritually uplifting. Everything a documentary should be.

REASONS TO STAY: If musical documentaries don’t interest you…

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few swear words and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Gil Friesen, the former head of A&M records, came up with the idea and title after attending a Leonard Cohen show with his friend Jimmy Buffett. Unfortunately, Friesen passed away shortly before the film debuted at Sundance earlier this year.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film has appeared at Sundance but won’t see theatrical release until June 14th but frankly, I don’t see critics not falling in love with this early Oscar contender.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Nancy, Please and more from the 2013 Florida Film Festival

2013 Florida Film Festival Begins Tonight!


Florida Film Festival 2013

Tonight marks the beginning of the 2013 Florida Film Festival, one of the best in the world and an event we here at Cinema365 look forward to with great anticipation every year. This year is the biggest one yet with 170 films from 23 different countries that cover nearly the entire range of film genre, from animated to horror films to documentaries to dramas to comedies to romances and everything in between. The opening night movie at 7pm tonight (there are only standby tickets available but if you’re interested give it a shot, you never know) is Twenty Feet from Stardom, an acclaimed documentary about backup singers that reportedly had even the savvy audiences at Sundance dancing in the aisles. We’ll be publishing our review of the film sometime late tonight or tomorrow.

My own personal recommendations are The Forgotten Kingdom which might just be the best movie playing at the Festival – a South African film on the nature of the father-son bond that can transcend just about anything, as well as Starbuck which also looks at fatherhood from the perspective of a slacker who finds himself the father of over 500 kids through excessive sperm donation. Documentary lovers should keep an eye out for The Year of the Living Dead which looks at George A. Romero and his iconic film Night of the Living Dead and it’s cultural impact.

We’ll be there to cover all of those and plenty more. So many films that our coverage will extend well past the festival’s end. Each movie playing the festival this year will get the Festival logo on the review, even if the review is published after the festival is history. If you haven’t been to a film festival, this is the one to see – it’s where filmmakers, stars and fans hang out in one big fun party atmosphere.

To get you started, today’s Cinema365 review is of a movie that played at last year’s festival, Your Sister’s Sister. You can click on the link to read the review and get an idea of the kind of movie you’ll see at this year’s festival.

Well, I’m off to the Regal for the opening night festivities. Hope to see you all there or in the upcoming nine days!

UPDATE: Well, if you ever wondered why opening nights are special at film festivals, this is your answer: tonight was simply transformative. Not only was the movie, Twenty Feet from Stardom an amazing documentary that everyone who has ever been inspired by music should see, we were lucky enough to be sitting directly behind one of the subjects of the film, backing vocalist Merry Clayton (you may not know the name but you sure know the voice – she’s the female vocals in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”) we were treated to a performance by Ms. Clayton singing Leon Russell’s classic “A Song for You” followed by a wonderfully spirited Q&A session with her and director Morgan Neville fielding questions from the blown-away audience.

A review of the movie will follow tomorrow but I’d have to say that the 2013 Florida Film Festival is off to an amazing start. Whatever you do, find a way to make it down here because this promises to be one of the best (if not the best) festival ever!