"It's an exciting film that's brimming with joyous energy, fantastic archival footage, and a superb insight into some iconic recording sessions"

Morgan Neville's documentary 20 Feet from Stardom raised eyebrows at this year's Oscars when it beat out hot favourite The Act of Killing to the best documentary award. It's not hard to see why the Academy voters were swayed, The Act of Killing was challenging, brave, and often very difficult to watch whereas 20 Feet from Stardom plants its feet firmly in more comfortable territory as it charts the history and celebrates the work of backing singers in the latter half of the 20th century.

A topic that surprisingly hasn't been covered before, Neville looks at the role of backing singers - particularly black females - who have lent their extraordinary talents to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, and Michael Jackson among many many others. He asks why some of them, like Darlene Love, are able to break out and find appreciation for their work, and why countless others aren't. Some, like Merry Clayton, were simply rejected by the industry despite their exceptional abilities but often they seem content to stand at the back. At least, that's what they tell the cameras.

It's an exciting film that's brimming with joyous energy, fantastic archival footage, and a superb insight into some iconic recording sessions, a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the word. These singers are understandably brilliant so Neville is often content just to put them on screen and let them impress, improvising or working their way through old classics. There are interviews with a number of rock and pop heavyweights (Wonder, Springsteen, Sting) but they are often justifiably pushed aside to give centre stage to the backing singers.

The problems with the film lie in its lack of any real conflict. We see singers yearning for stardom, and being pushed around by heavy-handed record companies, but these are the cold hard truths of the music industry. Not everyone with talent gets to be a star. The moaning of Judith Hill in particular, who became a minor hit when she performed at Michael Jackson's funeral, begins to grate after hearing for the tenth time how much she really wants to be a star.

The film threatens early on to ask important questions about racial and gender stereotyping when it opens with Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and highlights his line about "colored girls", but it's never fully able to drag itself away from the party to ask what needs to be asked. It's certainly enjoyable to watch but there is so much positivity here that the film becomes a back-slapping celebration that sometimes feels like a commercial for the industry itself. In promising, and struggling, to really get to the heart of the issue, 20 Feet from Stardom fails slightly as a documentary but still succeeds as an ecstatic glorification of some fantastic musicians.