At its heart, 20 Feet from Stardom answers a question that I have wrestled with since my teens – why Beyonce and not Kelly? Another way to pose that question is – why isn’t Janelle Monae a multi-million selling superstar?
Morgan Neville’s excellent documentary gives a relatively simple answer to these questions. For an hour and a half or so, the documentary does a great job of making the case that to succeed in the music business you need more than talent. I find this answer to be all of convincing, depressing and obvious. The documentary focuses on Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear, names I had never heard before watching this documentary. But these singers worked with some of the most iconic names in the business. In the case of Merry Clayton, she was the knock out voice on the Rolling Stone’s Gimme Shelter.
How Clayton wasn’t a superstar, I will never ever know. One of the most understated, yet heartbreaking moments of the film is when someone explains that the business already had Eretha Franklin – it didn’t need another gospel singer. I thought about this statement for a long time and wondered how many talented singers/ artists out there haven’t made it because they were too similar to established artists.
I would argue that it was only because Madonna, Whitney Houston and Elton John became irrelevant (or old) that Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Ed Sheeren came to take their lane. What I am trying to say is that the market doesn’t allow more than one type of artist at a time (at least it is very rare). This lack of competition is why so many talented back up singers don’t make it. It would be interesting to see if the film’s thesis on unfulfilled potential reached the white side of music. I know Sheryl Crow made it – is this the exception?
Overall, if you’re interested in music – especially soul/ r’n’b – then this is a must watch. I found it completely fascinating, heart-warming and engrossing.