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'Twenty Feet From Stardom' highlights background singers

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" portrays the important work of background singers in pop music from the 1950s on, including Darlene Love and Merry Shelton.

Darlene Love, one of the most famous background singers, performs in the documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom." Credit: RADiUS-TWC Darlene Love, one of the most famous background singers, performs in the documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom."
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’
Director: Morgan Neville
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Twenty Feet From Stardom,” a documentary about background singers in pop music from the 1950s on, ought to have been made decades ago, namely when most of its subjects could have profited off it while still young. It’s better late than never, though — especially as many of them are still alive and very much kicking. The focus is the mostly black singers who labored behind songs, not necessarily wanting to seize the much more stressful front. The earliest wave of singers came from gospel backgrounds, and suddenly found themselves using their sound for secular purposes.

They were mistreated and underappreciated, if granted consistent work. Darlene Love of The Blossoms sang lead on Phil Spector’s “He’s a Rebel,” only to find the song credited to The Crystals. By the ‘70s she was a cleaning woman, and only decided to claim her rightful success when she heard herself on the radio while scrubbing a bathroom. (She’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is a Broadway staple and kicks in the Christmas season every year on David Letterman's show.) Others were even more ambitious. Merry Clayton — who recorded her signature belting on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” at 2 a.m. while pregnant and wearing rollers — tried her best at a solo career. Despite the efforts of Clayton, producers and a supportive label, the public wasn’t having it.

At one point, Clayton’s “Gimme Shelter” crooning (“rape, murder — it’s just a shot away,” etc.) is isolated from the rest of the track. As her voice reaches the rafters, you can hear it cracking — as well as audible oohs and ahhs from those in the studio. Those imperfections are not something you can immediately hear on the full, polished song. (That Clayton suffered a miscarriage upon returning home adds a note of horror to her efforts.) Their inclusion in the film speaks to the passion and ambition of these performers, who helped fill out songs in ways that aren’t always immediately apparent. As they point out, their work is almost subliminally catchy: You hum their riffs without even realizing it.

The film does more than highlight the under-recognized. The subjects talk of the shock of working with white stars, about wondering what mumbly, spastic Joe Cocker was on about. When Lynyrd Skynyrd asked for someone to back up the pro-South “Sweet Home Alabama,” Clayton talks about how she did it out of protest — how their greatness would underline the shabbiness of the song's regressive worldview. As its subjects did to songs, "Twenty Feet From Stardom" fills in a story that, for many, was only somewhat there.

 
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