Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (Neville, 2013)

Still from the movie 20 Feet from Stardom

I don’t know how it came to be that I ended up on the other side of Sundance, the Academy, and 99% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but that’s how the chips fell, and I stand by my opinion that 20 Feet from Stardom is not an exceptional documentary. Not even a noteworthy one. (Not that this review is about other people’s opinions, but it’s interesting to me that 20 Feet won no awards at Sundance, not the Audience, Grand Jury, or even the Directing Award, the latter of which was taken by Cutie and the Boxer, also in competition that year).

As I mentioned in my Oscars reactions post, 20 Feet from Stardom is a conventional documentary that interweaves the stories of about half a dozen backup singers and commentary from major musicians like Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, and others. It’s mostly a talking heads piece with a few bits of concert and studio footage. Like Searching for Sugar Man, it depicts the plight of talented musicians who struggled and (mostly) failed to make it big and who might have also been screwed a little by the music industry in the process.

Maybe there’s rich material here, but director Morgan Neville‘s end product is trite, obvious, and scattered. With so many stories explored so shallowly, the film’s subjects all start to blend together. Viewers receive little context about the singers’ lives, so it is difficult to care much about them or their dreams. At every moment, I feel Neville tailoring our expectations and reactions. It has none of that feeling of naked truth that I love about documentaries. On the other hand, I suppose, there’s also no danger that it’s misleading us. In the end, the movie feels very made-for-TV.

So why the popularity? Does it just reflect movies’ infatuation with the music industry and musicians, which seem over-represented in film? Just at this past Sundance, we watched three pictures on that topic (Whiplash, Song One, and Frank). And last year’s Oscar documentary winner–Searching for Sugar Man–was also about a musician. Are we attracted by something ineffably human that comes out when we make music? Or are musicians just mysterious and sexy? What is it? Maybe, as with sports, trying to “make it big” as a musician offers such ripe, easy material for films, which seize on the sex, drugs, disappointments, and ultimate blinding-light triumphs. At any rate, it seems to be a formula that (usually) works.

(I’m going to put the link to the trailer here, but, if you don’t like spoilers, don’t watch it.)