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20 Feet From Stardom (Blu-ray Review)

20-Feet-From-StardomThere are a lot of people involved in creating and performing a song.  A band or a singer will get a hefty praise for a hit.  A producer can become legendary for making many of them.  Even guest musicians will find fame on some songs.  But, a back up singer?  They seem to find no glory, fame or historical relevance when looking back at big songs.  20 Feet From Stardom finally gives them the spotlight.  It’s a riveting look at the challenges and the struggles to make it as a back up singer from the roots of gospel and R&B to transitioning into the rock and roll scene.  There’s many successes, failures, funny anecdotes and hard times that come with the territory and its all gone over here in great and colorful detail.

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Film 

20 Feet From Stardom is a documentary film that follows the history and lives of many of the most prominent black female background singers from over the years.  You’ve heard all of these ladies many times, today and throughout the years, you just didn’t know their faces or names.  You know them by their voices on albums containing some other folks names and faces.  These ladies have incredibly impressive resumes for the pop stars whom they’ve helped enhance the vocals of throughout the years.  From Ray Charles to Bette Midler, from Sting to Steely Dan and The Boss himself Bruce Springsteen to the King of Pop Michael Jackson these girls have been toured and performed with the best of the best.

There’s a fresh flowing freeness to the interviews in this documentary that helps to give one some good laughs as if you’re in a Q&A room listening to these ladies tell their stories.  They express their passion for their music, crafting songs and mishaps that have happened with stars on the stage and producers in studio.  All of them are very candid and don’t seem to hold back on anything.  The best thing is that none of them come across as divas.  There’s a refreshing and humbling quality to each one of them that make them friendly to listen to and enjoy.

Of course it’s not just them being interviewed.  There’s an old white male veteran backup singer that helps to fill in some gaps and add an additional layer from another perspective on the topic.  Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger and Sting lend their interview confessionals about working with and being fans of the work done by the ladies in the film and others.  Its an interesting role reversal here as the artists are brought in here as the support (or backup) for the these ladies in this documentary.

If you’re into music even a pinch, you’ll find yourself a bit lost in this documentary.  There’s a lot of good history of black women coming up in the music business trying to make their big break against some adversity and getting screwed over at many different avenues.  There’s also plenty of laughs to be had with their inside scoops on artists and producers.  These ladies have an incredibly interesting, historic and fun story to tell and its one of those stories that should have been told by now but it hasn’t.  Whether you’re invested in an anecdote or grooving to a song playing, you’ll definitely be entranced for the 90 minute duration.

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Video 

You don’t have to sit 20 feet from your TV to get the most of this 1080p MPEG-4 AVC picture.  The 1:78.1 frame features a lot of interview footage and people standing in place and performing, so the picture is given no opportunity to distort.  Plus it’s a modern title from Anchor Bay, so you know the image is sharp with bold colors and incredibly clean and detailed.  The skin tones are consistent and the textures of the skin (wrinkles, lip texture, etc) shine through quite nicely.  There’s plenty of archive footage presented in the documentary but its looks exactly of its era and had me incredibly nostalgic for the older television and concert performances.  The picture has a great looking definition to it and is about as clear as clear can be.

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Audio 

This 5.1 DTS-HD MA track sings backup for no one.  It’s a kicking track.  The vocals are center focused but all the music is consuming and put at concert levels that make you want to bounce in your room.  There are plenty of vintage performances throughout the documentary but the audio is quite clean and sounds like a perfect vinyl recording at many instances.  In terms of audio and video here, the carpet does indeed match the drapes.

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Extras 

The disc contains over an hour of extra interviews and content.  To take things to another level for this, a soundtrack could have been provided, but that’s me begging and nit picking.

Deleted Scenes (HD, 29:00) – A slew of deleted material (12 scenes) from the film containing extended interviews and some extra session work from the film.

The Buddy System (HD, 8:52) – A short piece that must have been deleted from the film that talks about the strength and importance of the “buddy system” which is helping each other to maintain and acquire gigs.

Times Talks: Q&A With Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer & Director Morgan Neville (HD, 29:24) – A New York Times sponsored Q&A session following a screening of the film on June 11, 2013.

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Summary 

This documentary finds a wonderful niche within the world of doing documentaries on music genres and or a specific group.  If anything its far more educational and entertaining than those as there’s not a whole lot of information readily available or that you’d think to research going in.  The women are all strong interviews and each has great stories and experiences to share.  Anchor Bay knocks it out of the park with its presentation of perfect audio and video as well as a good hour of extra material from the documentary.  The documentary itself also features a lot of really cool vintage clips and studio session videos that I found to be pretty awesome as well.  I didn’t know of this prior to getting it for review.  Yahoo! Has named it as one of the “Top 25 Films Of 2013” and I surely can agree with that.  I was quite taken with these women’s stories, laughing with them, celebrating their successes with them and even feeling for them when they either got screwed or just didn’t make it as a solo artist.  Their story is captivating and well worth your time.


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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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