20 Feet from Stardom

Twenty Feet From Stardom
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Director: Morgan Neville
Cert: 12A
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear
Running Time: 1 hr 31 mins

The highest-grossing US documentary of 2013 arrives here with rave notices and an Academy Award attached. For one night only, Morgan Neville’s charming, feel-good picture shines the spotlight on the lesser-seen back-up vocalists recounted by the title.

Some, like Gloria Jones, are startlingly glamorous. Others, like Merry Clayton, should have been contenders. Almost all, tellingly, are ministers’ daughters who honed their dazzling ranges in gospel choirs.

As Bruce Springsteen notes, it doesn't matter how talented you are, the 20 feet between the lead vocalist and the supporting singer is a lot further than it sounds. The Boss ought to know: he's been married to his impossibly talented E-Street Band collaborator Patti Scialfa since 1991. Equally starry talking heads appear attached to David Bowie and Mick Jagger: both of these gentlemen are former squeezes of backing singer Claudia Lennear.

The big boys, it seems, all know whom they have to thank.


Many of Neville’s subjects attempted solo careers that were marred by poor promotion, contractual wrangling and the usual vagaries of the music industry. Others have always been content with the 20-feet gap and have, throughout their careers, used their voices as a beautiful instrument in a grander ensemble.

These gifted musicians don't always have it easy. Darlene Love, the sublime chanteuse who ensures, via Phil Spector's seasonal extravaganza, that all our Christmases are white, recalls hearing herself on the radio while working as a cleaning lady.

Thankfully, this hugely enjoyable film puts Love and others up front and centre, where we feel they belong. 20 Feet from Stardom is a feelgood singalong that only lightly touches on subjects such as race before returning to its Cinderella framework.

It’s only right that the film strikes a celebratory note. And relevant back catalogues – not to mention the soundtrack – are available in all the usual outlets. Happy trails, music fans.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic