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20 Feet from Stardom

Whether they’re grappling with the side effects of success or (more likely) licking the wounds of failure, I don’t have much sympathy for people trying to be superstars. And as much as 20 Feet from Stardom is primarily an affectionate profile of some of pop’s most noteworthy backup singers, it spends a little too much time entertaining assertions that these (mostly) women’s status as historical footnotes is some kind of gross injustice.

Granted, it’s not all pity party, and even when it is, valid points are made, especially about Phil Spector’s shady dealings and the lower odds of success available to people of color in the thick of the 1960s civil rights movement. And most importantly, whether or not they feel they deserved more in their careers, most of the singers profiled clearly have an honest love for making music, which forms the film’s undeniably sweet soul.

But even just a few moments of overzealous cheerleading can diminish the goodwill of those heart-melting harmonies, such as David Lasley grumbling for auto-tune to get off his lawn, as if the assembly line were new to pop music, and everyone else who ever had talent was famous. Likewise, the exaltation of the voice as music’s be-all and end-all seems to suggest that instrumentalists for hire are more deserving of their place in obscurity.

At this point, one might wonder what I expected from something called 20 Feet from Stardom. It’s a fair question, and I’ll say that the film competently – often elegantly – delivers exactly what its name says it will. But as someone who finds the concept of fame as the pinnacle of human endeavor tiresome, I think the film is at its best when it concentrates less on stardom and more on people making music.