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After Years in Shadow, Oscar Winner '20 Feet From Stardom' Lets Backup Singers Take Center Stage (UPDATED)

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood November 26, 2013 at 4:01PM

It was a big task for a little documentary to go up against the likes of "Man of Steel," "Monsters University" and "World War Z." In a way, though, it's a fitting role for Morgan Neville's film. Those big popcorn flicks can hold up a mirror to our lives, but "20 Feet from Stardom" goes deeper. By asking questions about sex, race and the American dream, it challenges us to look critically at our collective, national soul. In doing so, it's one of the most important films of the year.

'I just wanted to hear them sing'

Neville is a strong but sensitive interviewer/editor: one particular moment, when he cuts back to one of the women for a split-second facial reaction that speaks volumes, comes to mind. But "20 Feet from Stardom" is most compelling when Neville breaks away from the "story" of the documentary and focuses on the women singing. The results are stunning.

"The recording stuff came out of pure frustration," Neville told me.  "I just wanted to hear them sing, because they're so incredible. And it was so difficult to hear them sing, or to find footage of them. They're in the background--by definition, they're hidden."

Neville brings Love, Clayton, Fischer and the younger Judith Hill, who was prepping to perform on the "Bad" tour with Michael Jackson-- into the foreground, and then gets out of the way. The cinematography of these scenes is gorgeous: filmed on Red digital cameras, they intimately evoke the soft edges of nostalgia.

"It was revelatory to me," Neville says of the first time he recorded Fischer improvising. "Not only was I seeing what an incredible artist she is, but I was able to understand who she is as a person through her voice. Watching somebody sing reveals a lot about character.  I just wanted to hear these women sing as much as I could, so I had to create situations for them to sing in."

This article is related to: Morgan Neville, Documentary, The Weinstein Co., Sundance Film Festival, Musical, Documentaries, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Awards, Documentary, Documentaries, Interviews, Interviews

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.