20 Feet From Stardom Directed by Morgan Neville. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Back in the 1930s, when musicals first emerged in the movies, one of the most durable, crowd-pleasing narratives was that of the obscure chorus girl who unexpectedly gets her big chance and becomes a star. Morgan Neville’s rousing documentary 20 Feet From Stardom provides a more realistic counterpoint, examining the failed careers of extraordinary female singers—all of them African-American, notably—who thrilled audiences performing back-up vocals for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Rolling Stones, but were unable to achieve success on their own. Of the interview subjects, only Darlene Love has a recognizable name, thanks to her work with Phil Spector; when you hear the others, you’ll wonder how it’s possible for so much raw, unmistakable talent to be so little appreciated.
Neville has a great deal of experience directing TV biopics of musicians, and 20 Feet From Stardom has the episodic, scattershot structure of mediocre television, which prevents it from truly soaring. It’s also a tad hagiographic—only Mick Jagger has the courage to note that some singers, no matter how gifted, simply don’t have what it takes to command a stage from front and center. At the same time, though, the expression on Jagger’s face when he hears Merry Clayton’s isolated backing vocals on “Gimme Shelter” speaks far more eloquently. Documentaries about the rich and famous are a dime a dozen; it’s a treat to see one that makes the case for people who were left standing in the shadows.