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20 Feet from Stardom

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Annual Academy Awards

Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Bette Midler, Sting, Sheryl Crow—you’ve heard of all of them, right? How about Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton and Jo Lawry? Not anywhere near as familiar, are they? But maybe they should be. And, at least as the Academy Award-nominated “20 Feet from Stardom” would have it, they should have at least been given a shot. The women presented in this chronicle are all super-talented, with great voices—and are still scraping together a living. Something’s not right. The level of the bar is culturally, and sometimes sexually, biased. Because not only are all of the performers presented of the female persuasion—but they are all women of color too. And if that doesn’t give you an inkling of what we’ve been dealing with all of these years, you haven’t been paying attention.

It’s pretty difficult to deny the importance of these ladies after listening to heavyweights like Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder sing their praises in this film. Even more difficult when hearing the testimony of the one, that managed to cross over. That one is Darlene Love. And she’s in her early 70’s now, but she didn’t manage to “make it” as a solo act until she was around 40. And this after recording one of the most celebrated Christmas songs of all time(“Christmas, Baby Please Come Home”)for Phil Spector when she was in her early 20’s—and getting almost no credit for it. Ms. Love toiled on for years—but now she’s in the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame. It is a rare occurrence, but Darlene finally pulled it off. The others haven’t been so lucky. You’ll bear witness to brand new interviews(mixed with old footage and vintage photographs), in which the subjects discuss their various attempts at recording and releasing their own work—and how the studios didn’t support it, so the public never got a chance to care. It’s heartbreaking at times. But for the most part these ladies seem highly confident and persevering—and that aspect is inspirational. You can knock ’em down, but they keep getting up.

At times, I wished “20 Feet from Stardom” was a little bit more certain of its trajectory. Occasionally, the focus is lost as to which performer they are talking about. The women are mostly 60+ now, so the archival footage presented shows them at 40 to 50 years younger. But that’s a relatively minor quibble. It’s a small-scale documentary that plays perfectly on your television set. And the sampling of the career of 30 year-old Judith Hill is extra compelling, for her possible big break was snatched away from her—upon the death of Michael Jackson. For anyone who has seen the “This Is It” concert film, Judith is the one who does that astounding duet with the King of Pop. Alas, a record-breaking, multi-date, stadium venture—that was never to be. I’ve seen better documentaries from 2013, but music lovers should be sure to visit this one. It chronicles the always difficult, often unrewarding, sometimes lucrative and usually financially unstable world of the music business. And the women behind the scenes who make the rock gods sound better than they actually are.     Grade:  B+

next review up:  “Frozen 3D”

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