Movies: "20 Feet from Stardom" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "20 Feet from Stardom"
Movies: "20 Feet from Stardom"

Do you know these names:  Lisa Fischer, Patti Austin, Stevvi Alexander, Claudia Lennear or Tata Vega?  If you love rock ‘n’ roll or soul music, you should.  They’re the sweet-sounding background singers who’ve provided depth and harmony to virtually every hit record of the past forty years, performing alongside everyone from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson.

Now they’re finally getting their due in an absolutely sensational movie titled “20 Feet from Stardom.”

Many of their individual stories share a common origin, singing in a black church choir.  In fact, several of them were the daughters of preachers.  One former Raelette, a backup singer for Ray Charles, Dr. Mabel John is herself a minister now.  At a later stage of their careers, their stories also intertwine:  most who left the background gig for a shot at a solo career have fallen short of success.

There are some exceptions, primarily the amazing Darlene Love (nee Wright), the godmother of backup singers, who recorded such hits as “He’s A Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” with her group the Blossoms under the obsessive control of producer Phil Spector, only to see him assign the singing credits to another of his girl groups, the Crystals.  As Love recalls it, they were on tour when she recorded those songs and had never heard them until they found themselves lip-synching them on TV.

Another breakout was Merry Clayton, whose piercing shrieks of “rape, murder” gave the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” so much of its primal power.  And there’s Lisa Fischer, never a solo star but still in demand for her lovely voice.


We hear from all of them and many others in “20 Feet from Stardom” plus interviews with such headliners as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, a surprisingly sympathetic Sting and producer Lou Adler, all of whom show their appreciation for the work these women -- and a few male backups -- have done for them.


The movie was directed by Morgan Neville, who has helmed a seemingly endless string of music biopics on such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Brian Wilson and Sam Phillips, the Memphis recording wizard who, in Neville’s film title, “invented rock ‘n’ roll.”  With cinematographers Nicola Marsh and Graham Willoughby, he gives us glittering images of music meccas New York and Los Angeles, and places us right on stage with some of the biggest acts in the business.  The audio is terrific too, clean and powerful.  This is one great music movie.

 

“20 Feet from Stardom” is rated PG-13 for some adult language here and there.  Never mind.  Bring your older kids for a vital lesson on the history of modern American pop music and the sheer joy of performing, even when you’re not center stage.

 

I loved this movie and give it an A.

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