Who dreams of being a backup singer? Our culture is made for the star, the frontman, the diva—with or without Auto-Tune. This might be why 20 Feet From Stardom, an otherwise delightful documentary, is tinged with an air of disappointment. Meeting the full-throated likes of Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, and Lisa Fischer, we understand these are masters of their craft. But the question nags: If they are masters, why aren’t they stars?
20 Feet engages that question, although somehow it’s a shame we have to ask it. Why wouldn’t it be enough to make a nice living, meet interesting people, and bring beautiful song into the world? If the soulful Fischer doesn’t have the killer instinct it takes to sacrifice everything for the spotlight, maybe she’s got it figured out. The film includes some who made the leap, including Darlene Love and Sheryl Crow, but the focus is mostly on the folks who’ve made a career out of being in the background. Like the 2002 doc Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it’s got a built-in hook: all that great music, served with annotations from musicians.