In telling the stories of several prolific backup singers, Twenty Feet from Stardom not only shines a spotlight on the people, mostly women, responsible for some of the most memorable moments in 20th-century music, it also touches on the civil rights movement, the birth of rock n’ roll, the place that blues and gospel have within rock, and the record industry’s mistreatment of women. It’s a wealth of thematic riches that director Morgan Neville sometimes has trouble fashioning into a clear overriding narrative, but the joys of the film—namely, how it leaves us wanting to immediately seek out the incredible, sometimes unfamiliar music we’ve just heard—override any flaws in its structure.
Twenty Feet from Stardom’s overarching concern, as its title suggests, is the difficulty of transitioning from being a backup to lead singer, a move that the majority of those interviewed seem to want or once wanted to make. The profiled singers show a clear and valid pride in their work, but they’re unable to completely dismiss the feeling expressed by Mick Jagger, who says bluntly about their trade, “I wouldn’t want to do it for a living.” But Neville has trouble portraying their inner turmoil, as the film jumps around between various singers from different time periods, though not always fluidly, at times emphasizing how backup singing is rewarding on its own, at others lamenting how hard it is to travel those 20 feet to the spotlight, only to then acknowledge those in the film who’ve succeeded in doing so. In a sense, this offers a multifaceted view of backup singing, equally considerate of the field’s payoffs and discontents, but the clunky, almost noncommittal way Neville alternates between arguments gives the film a certain shapelessness.
More often than not, though, Twenty Feet from Stardom tackles what can be complex subject matter with grace. At one point, Merry Clayton tells of how she ended up singing backup vocals on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” As an African-American, Clayton explains that her decision to participate in the song’s production was fraught. Only years after the victories of the civil rights movement, Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing up its Southern heritage, using “Sweet Home Alabama” to respond to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” whose lyrics fiercely denounced racism in the South. That context, which Neville emphasizes by intercutting Clayton’s interview with footage of civil rights protests and images of Lynyrd Skynyrd playing a show with a Confederate flag as a backdrop, makes Clayton’s defiant explanation of why she joined the band in the studio for the song remarkable (“We gonna sing you anyway. We gonna sing the crap out of you”) and Neville’s further handling of the scene all the more powerful. Right after Clayton speaks, Neville cuts to footage of her performing an impassioned cover of “Southern Man.” These short series of moments practically lift you off your seat with satisfaction and they demonstrate the potent mix of history, politics, and fantastic music that ultimately makes Twenty Feet from Stardom, similar to 2002’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown, such a joy to watch.