Search Film Reviews

Sunday, June 9, 2013


2013, 89 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material

Review by Joshua Handler

Darlene Love performing "Lean on Me" at the Open Road Rooftop
Photo credit: Joshua Handler
Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet From Stardom is pure bliss.  It is a documentary that will have you laughing and tapping your toes while giving you goosebumps from its pure power.  The film is about African-American background singers who are the unsung voices on the most famous songs of all time.  These women share stories about their successes and their regrets in a film that will make you believe in movie magic once again.

You don't have to have a large interest in music to enjoy this film.  It does not require a large musical background to understand what is going on (if you know who The Rolling Stones are, you're fine).  This is a film that shows how humans can be brought together by the ability to sing, and the women featured in the film frequently discuss their love of being in a group of singers harmonizing with one another.  This infectious group energy transfers to the audience when a particularly lively song plays (many in the audience were tapping their feet) or a powerful note is belted out.  When we hear a powerful note like Merry Clayton, a background singer and one of the film's subjects, belting out "Rape!  Murder!" for The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", we are naturally electrified.  In the film, those words are soloed out, and on their own, they hold a rare power.

The interviews are among the best I've seen, as they really show the emotional range of the interviewees.  The women interviewed are lively and extremely entertaining to watch, yet are very open and not afraid to speak about what held them back from stardom and the regrets that they have had to deal with in the past.  For every bright moment in an interview or music clip, there is a tragic undertone.  It is sad to see so many incredibly talented women behind the famous lead singers of bands waiting to be recognizedTwenty Feet From Stardom highlights this.
.  It is so evident that they have the voice, but for whatever reason, they were held back.  This film shows how many of the women have never made it "big" because of fate.  Fate plays so much of a part into whether people "make it" in the music industry, and

Director Morgan Neville made the smart decision to let silence speak.  In one memorable sequence, a song is playing over images of Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton.  They don't say anything, but their facial expressions tell all.  By hearing this music, so many great memories are brought back to these two legends and their smiles say more than words ever could.

Finally, the pure sense of joy of watching Twenty Feet From Stardom is a rarity.  Hardly ever do films have me smiling or tapping my feet from beginning to end, but Twenty Feet From Stardom managed that.  It is an exhilarating experience to watch.

Overall, Twenty Feet From Stardom is a documentary that should be seen by all and should not be missed.  People old and young will love it, as the old will remember the music referenced and the young will learn about the great classics.  This movie, above all, is uplifting and the perfect antidote to a bad day.  Few movies released each year pack as large a punch and as much joy as Twenty Feet From Stardom.

This film was shown as part of the Rooftop Film Series, which features early screenings of hot new independent films straight from the early year festival circuit.  This screening was held on the Open Road Rooftop at the New Design High School.  Tickets for the upcoming films can be purchased here.  It was a truly unique event that makes for a great, and cheap at $13, night out in NYC.  There was an after-party with free drinks served that I did not attend.


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