When singer Judith Hill took the stage in a surprise appearance at the Dreamland Theatre it was a sweet moment in a career that has had its share of setbacks. She basked in the standing ovation for Morgan Neville’s Opening Night Film at the 18th Annual Nantucket Film Festival, “20 Feet from Stardom.” The striking half Japanese, half African-American stunner is one of the secret weapons this documentary about backup singers you’ve heard but might not know, from Darlene Love to Lisa Fischer to Hill.
Neville's Oscar-bound documentary has an army of singers ready to deploy – and Hill is one of the rising stars and, at 29, the youngest profiled in the film. On stage in Nantucket, she became the embodiment of the film, a young artist yearning for a solo career, while having made it as a back-up singer to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
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After the applause ebbed and the audience sat back down, Hill brought down the house singing the tune she co-wrote, “Desperation,” while accompanying herself on the keyboards. Hill can sell a song. She’s had her ups – she was Michael Jackson’s duet partner in his final tour “This is It,” a moment captured in the film. And her downs – she was rehearsing with Jackson until his 2009 death.
Jackson’s untimely death ironically brought Hill global attention when she sang “Heal the World” at Jackson’s televised memorial. She made “The Voice” Season Four, only to be eliminated on the Top 8 show. And her struggle to make it as a solo artist continues right up through last night’s intimate evening in Cape Cod.
Hill’s story is just one of many revealed in Neville’s crowd-pleasing, music filled documentary. Along the way, the mix of talking heads, contemporary performances and found footage deploys some heavy hitters like Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow to sing the praises of the women who enriched their sound.
Of her short time with Michael Jackson, Hill told the sold-out crowd it was “magical.” Of her time on "The Voice," she described it as an ultimately positive experience in finding her own personal voice as a performer. And if this film can get her broader recognition, then she will be singing backup on its Oscar campaign all the way to next year’s Academy Awards Ceremony, along with Darlene Love, the most famous back-up singer of her generation.
Photo Credit: RADiUS-TWC/Everett Collection