4 Stars - Powerful
Morgan Neville’s documentary gives far more insight into our shared human experience than merely a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of musicians. Focusing on the backup singers whose talents often overshadow those of the stars they serve, Neville’s exploration of the dynamics of and relationships between those who support leaders in a subservient position is fascinating. Allowing the musicians to speak for themselves without any additional commentary while filling the screen with powerful musical performances, 20 Feet from Stardom is a valuable and entertaining film.
The strength of Neville’s work lies in the variety and abundance of musicians he has included. Although it is a little difficult to keep everyone’s stories straight, his thesis that the twenty feet from the back to the front of the stage is a distance that is hard for people to cross. The reasons for this are many: some backup singers don’t have the narcissistic ego or powerful presence required to command the stage; others don’t want to take the responsibility of the lead position; others enjoy the harmonization and supportive process of being a part of the group of singers; and still others try to move to a solo artist career but are unsuccessful because they don’t understand the politics or the realities of the music business.
The amazing musicians showcased in the film include stars and backup singers, but there are also producers, technicians and family members. Only some of the musicians included in the film are Sting, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Sheryl Crow, Darlene Long, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear and Judith Hill. All of the featured back-up singers honed their skills singing in church, some starting as young as the age of 4, where not only their abilities to sing harmonies developed but their skills to sing with soulful emotions were developed as well.
Although the capricious and sometimes manipulative nature of the music industry may be an extreme example of this, the truth is that there is a sometimes imperceptibly wide distance between leadership and supportive team members. The whole of the musical performance requires all to work together in harmony, but the weight and direction of the band falls upon the leader who takes responsibility in both financial and personal ways. This is true of all human endeavors and requires both a willingness and an ability to lead. It is not just talent or skill that is required, as this film clearly shows. Often those who are part of the team are more talented than the leader, but it is the leader who pulls the team together and gets the best performance or achievement out of each member. Luther Vandross, Sting and others are shown to be such leaders.
20 Feet from Stardom should be a part of all leadership training since it helps people identify the nature of the choice to be a leader of the band or a singer who helps create the music. Both are extremely valuable roles and both should be fairly compensated, both monetarily and by recognition and praise, though this has not occurred often enough. When this occurs, then we truly can make beautiful music together!
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. The nature of relationships is complex. When you look at your own life, do you find yourself leading or supporting leaders? Did you choose the role you are in or did it choose you? Do you want to make a different choice? Why or why not?
2. It is obvious in this film that some of the best musical talent is found in the back-up singers. But it is also said that to use that talent as a solo artist leading your own band requires ego and drive. Understanding that talent and ego are two different things, how many of the leaders you know have both talent and ego?
3. The decision of the producers to use the voices of the back-up singers to be lip-synced by the stars without recognition seems unethical. Do you think this is unethical and if so why or why not?