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Twenty Feet from Stardom Blu-ray Review

Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) movie poster Twenty Feet from Stardom

Theatrical Release: June 14, 2013 / Running Time: 91 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Morgan Neville / Tagline: Meet the unsung heroes behind the greatest music of our time

Interview Subjects: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Jamie Pendarvis, Lynn Mabry, Jo Lawry, Cindy Mizelle, Charlotte Crossley, David Lasley, Dr. Mable John, Edna Wright, The Blossoms, Lou Adler, Bill Maxwell, Dr. Todd Boy, Patty Austin, Chris Botti, Sheryl Crow, Susaye Green, David Bide, Tαta Vega, Gloria Jones, The Waters Family, Claudia Lennear, Stevvi Alexander, Warren Zanes, Rose Stone

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Next week's announcement of the nominees for the 86th Academy Awards will probably hold few surprises for those who have been following the award season and seeing many of the year-end contenders.
In a few categories, though, films already know if they are in contention or not and exactly how many other films have a shot at the award they're chasing.

Best Documentary Feature is one of the categories that have produced such a shortlist. Early last month, the Academy released a list of fifteen eligible features vying for one of that Oscar's five nominee slots. Joining presumed frontrunners The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell and likely nominee Blackfish is Twenty Feet from Stardom, a well-reviewed and well-attended documentary that hails from The Weinstein Company's niche Radius-TWC label.

Twenty Feet is the latest effort of Morgan Neville, a veteran documentarian who has made films and television on the likes of Johnny Cash, Brian Wilson, Ray Charles, and Iggy and the Stooges. This time out, Neville turns the spotlight on musicians who by definition don't get the spotlight: backup singers. The director interviews dozens of background singers and some of the more accomplished solo artists they've backed up, including the cover-cited Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Bette Midler.

Since Ray Charles already got an Oscar-winning biopic, "Twenty Feet from Stardom" turns our attentions to the background singers, who unusually occupy the foreground of this television shot.

There's obvious appeal in that design, acknowledging these unsung and generally unknown talents who have contributed to some of the best-known and most highly-regarded songs of the 1960s and '70s. Fittingly, Neville uses Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side", a song that explicitly acknowledges and prominently features backup singers, on the opening credits, whose imagery cleverly obscures the headliners in front of the support.

Those credits single out four backup artists as the film's stars. Three of them -- Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer -- have experienced some success as solo artists. The fourth -- young Judith Hill -- aspires to the same, most recently, as a shrinkwrap sticker notes, on the fourth season of "The Voice."

Love is established as something like the patron saint of backup singers. She was among the first women of color (a label that applies to most of the film's subjects) to be prominently featured in television performances. That her trajectory represents the best case scenario sheds light on this profession's limitations. While Love and her girl group The Blossoms collaborated with major pop acts and even got to do some work on their own, they didn't always get properly credited by their producer, Phil Spector (yes, the convicted murderer), who would sometimes attach another group's name to their vocals. At least Spector let Love sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." That enduring 1963 holiday tune is twice featured and celebrated in the film, but even that wasn't enough to keep Love from working as a cleaning lady.

Album covers show the numerous, mostly unsuccessful attempts of backup singers to become solo artists. Darlene Love gets to sing lead in the film's fitting closing performance of "Lean on Me."

Others have similar stories and have resorted to less glamorous ways of making money than playing Danny Glover's wife
in the Lethal Weapon series (a topic gladly but briefly mentioned). Claudia Lennear inspired the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, but struck out as a solo artist and has been teaching Spanish. The film adequately covers others who have attempted the tough transition to featured act, few of them succeeding.

Much of the film simply calls attention to inspired use of backup artists. Clayton recalls being called out of bed one night with curlers in her hair to scream "Rape, murder!" for the Stones' haunting, excellent "Gimme Shelter." She also reflects on singing on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" while not sharing its sentiments. My favorite stretch of the film finds The Waters Family, a trio of unknowns rattling off iconic, aptly-sampled pieces of pop culture they lent their voice to, from the "Growing Pains" theme song to The Lion King's opening "Circle of Life" chants to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and Avatar's Toruk sounds.

Twenty Feet from Stardom doesn't make any startling revelations or surprise us in any way. The film largely consists of old women reflecting on the good and bad parts of their anonymous singing careers, material complemented by looks at the striking, hopeful Hill, who rehearsed singing with Jackson for his unrealized final concert tour and then gained notice for a performance at his memorial service. It's entertaining, sharply edited, and visually varied. That it doesn't tackle a pressing issue or have political or historical weight will probably prevent it from winning the genre's Oscar. Then again, last year's winner, Searching for Sugar Man, told the story of Rodriguez, a folk artist who, contrary to rumors, wasn't as short-lived as his American career. Maybe it's got a shot. It probably doesn't hurt to have the Weinsteins (whose high school football doc Undefeated won the 2011 Oscar) in your corner, either, even if the brothers have bigger, more elusive awards on their mind.

Grossing nearly $5 million from just 147 domestic theaters, Twenty Feet is about as big of a commercial success as you can get from such a limited release. Box Office Mojo ranks the performance 32nd overall among all documentaries from the past thirty years. Only three movies higher on the list played in as few theaters. Two days after it doesn't vie for the Golden Globes' documentary honor, Twenty Feet hits DVD and Blu-ray from Weinstein/Radius-TWC video distributor Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Twenty Feet from Stardom Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: January 14, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($19.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video


Twenty Feet from Stardom appears in 1.78:1 widescreen on Blu-ray. Not surprisingly, the newly-shot material looks terrific. Archival clips depend on the source. A licensed Talking Heads performance shows only the rare, minor imperfection. Older excerpts of television look like they're emanating from a low resolution YouTube clip. On the whole, the Blu-ray's picture satisfies, but to varying degrees typical of a documentary.

The one and only soundtrack, a 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix, thoroughly pleases as well. Dialogue is always crisp and intelligible, while music fittingly adds some life and vigor. The peaks and valleys are a bit much; the bass boom on the credits' "Walk on the Wild Side" might be the most demanding thing your subwoofer handles this year and will probably have you reaching for the remote, only to have to turn the volume back up when quieter speaking prevails.

Judith Hill, a rising backup singer with solo artist ambitions prominently featured in the film, also appears in a number of the Blu-ray's deleted scenes. Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton do more than just answer questions in the New York Times Talks Q & A session.


The Blu-ray divides its extras into three classes.

First up comes a section of twelve deleted scenes, running 29 minutes. They include singers who didn't make it into the movie and expand on a few who only briefly appeared in the film,

like Jo Lawry and Stevvi Alexander. They show us Judith Hill's parents and give us more of Hill performing.

"The Buddy System" (8:52) seems like an additional deleted scene which collects a variety of thoughts on the mix of rivalry and kinship that those in the industry share with one another. It's not the most coherently edited piece, but it does feature Martha Wash, the voice (but not the face) of C + C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now" declaration.

Finally and most substantially, we get a "Times Talks Q & A" (29:24), part of a long-running New York Times' event series. Journalist Jon Pareles moderates a chat with Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, and director Morgan Neville. Neville speaks a little about the project's origins and evolution, but most of the time goes to the ladies, who reflect further on their experiences and careers.

The disc opens with a trailer for fellow Oscar-shortlisted Radius-TWC documentary Cutie and the Boxer. It's not accessible by menu and Twenty's own trailer is nowhere to be found.

The menu applies sparkles and lights to a bar of listings placed underneath singing clips from the film. Like other Weinstein Blu-rays, this one regrettably doesn't resume unfinished playback and doesn't allow you to set bookmarks.

No coupons, digital copy code, other kind of insert, or reverse cover artwork accompany the full color labeled disc inside the plain blue keepcase.

Merry Clayton enjoys a return to a recording studio she fondly recalls in "Twenty Feet from Stardom." David Bowie's "Young Americans" is cited as an example of song that makes prominent use of backup singers.


Twenty Feet from Stardom is an enjoyable feature-length celebration of backup singers and their calling. Its feel-good nature may hurt its Oscar chances, but makes it a more pleasant viewing than most of the more serious contenders.

With a fine feature presentation and a decent collection of extras, this Blu-ray release leaves nothing to be desired, though as with any documentary, you'll need to be really into the subject to expect to watch it more than once.

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Reviewed January 11, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 Radius-TWC, Tremolo Productions, Gil Friesen Productions,
2014 The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment, Anchor Bay Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.