Cinema review: Twenty Feet From Stardom with Q&A

They say that behind every great man there is a great woman.

Documentary film Twenty Feet From Stardom shines a light on the backing singers behind some of the greatest acts in popular music – many of them being women.

Ahead of its general release on Friday, the Odeon in Manchester’s Printworks hosted a special screening of the film, followed by a Q&A with and live performance from one of its stars, Judith Hill.

Twenty Feet From Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville, made its debut at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and this year won the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

As well as telling the story of some of pop music’s most esteemed backing vocalists, the film features soundbites from some of the legendary performers who drew on their talents.

Although issues like sexism, exploitative producers and current reality TV shows are touched on, a biting expose of the music industry this is not.

Instead, with its almost non-stop soundtrack of hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s and talking head interview style, it is unashamed nostalgia – it could have passed for a Friday night documentary on BBC Four.

What it does have, nonetheless, is undoubted star quality – and not the Gyles Brandreth kind. 

There are contributions from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting and Stevie Wonder, who show their appreciation of backing singers and give some insightful views on their trade.

The film has its peaks and troughs, like any pop song of note, with some genuinely moving moments. The backing singers, appropriately enough, are the standout feature of the film, none more so than Lisa Fischer.

Many of the film’s key themes run through her, from the glamour and satisfaction that could be gained from doing backing vocals to the regrets of a solo career which failed to take off.

Fischer’s dreams were killed off by bad luck and bad timing, but she admits to being most comfortable in just singing, rather than having to cope with the pressures and scrutiny of celebrity.  

One former backing singer who did make the leap into stardom, Sheryl Crow, said of the profession: “We might not know their names, but they had a huge impact on some of our most famous songs.”

The film does certainly alter one’s impression of songs like The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ and David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, where the hook – that part of the song which burrows deepest into audiences’ heads – comes from the backing singer or singers rather than the star.

The next generation of backing vocalists is represented by Judith Hill.

Hill, 29, is an American singer-songwriter who was to duet with Michael Jackson on his 2009 ‘This Is It’ tour.

Jackson’s death meant the tour never was, but the months Hill spent practising with him certainly left an impression, as she revealed in the Q&A following the film, which was hosted by Manchester-born Sylvia Tella, herself a backing singer for Boney M.

“Working with Michael was kind of like a dream,” Hill said. “We got to see the magic at first hand. He was also such a sweetheart to work with.”

Having done backing vocals for Stevie Wonder, Kylie Minogue and others, Hill is now striking out on her own, on the back of her appearance as a contestant on the American edition of The Voice in 2013.

Speaking of the show, she said: “I loved the experience, and it accelerated the process of artist development, showing me which songs worked best for me and how audiences reacted to them.”

She admitted that it had been stressful. “It can work out very well for you, but it can also be harmful,” she said.

She is now ‘anxious to put out the music’ (her debut album, due out this year) and go on tour. The Manchester audience got a taste of what to expect, with a live performance of her songs ‘Desperation’ and ‘Beautiful Life’.

It is clear that her vocals possess an uncommon richness and power, but that was true of many a gifted backing singer who couldn’t make the step up, and so much is dependent on her ability to self-promote, finding the right people to work with and making the most of whatever circumstances come her way.

Judith Hill has stepped from the background into the spotlight; how far her talents can take her, only time will tell.

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