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Movie Review

20 Feet From Stardom

20 Feet From Stardom
Vocalists in "20 Feet from Stardom."

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Rated PG-13 for language and sexual material. One hour, 31 minutes.
Publication date: Jul. 19, 2013
Review by Peter Canavese
Released: (2013)

What would popular music sound like without the backup singers? The answer is, of course, unthinkable, as Morgan Neville's documentary "20 Feet from Stardom" reminds us.

Neville does a good job of highlighting songs that are especially characterized by backup singers, like Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," and introducing us to some of the "unsung" talent that made those hits possible. Among the vocalists highlighted in the film are Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, the Waters Family, Claudia Lennear, Mabel John, Stevvi Alexander, Jo Lawry, Tata Vega, Lynn Mabry and Judith Hill.

That nearly all of the talent is female gives the film a charge of feminist electricity, but the doc also serves as a parable of pursuing a big-time professional career in the arts. For every household name (and six testify in the film: Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow), there's a breathtaking singer who never quite got the breaks or, perhaps, lacked the ambitious drive to pursue downstage stardom.

If this is a film about the art and struggle of the backup singer, the premise is undercut by the inclusion of Love, who struggled mightily to get out from under the iron fist of producer Phil Spector but nevertheless qualifies as a bona fide star (and an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) who has mostly sung lead, headlines shows and appears annually for a featured slot on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Still, who wouldn't want to spend time with Love? She sings, reflects and admits that she nearly gave up for good, cleaning houses until she heard herself on the radio while doing so and resolved to return to her calling.

Though Love throws off the balance of the movie, its heart is with such performers as Fischer and Clayton who have sung mostly backup and who have been unable to sustain or launch solo careers. Neville celebrates their brushes with stardom -- like Clayton's famously blistering solo on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and Fischer's only solo album, "So Intense" -- but also allows the singers to ponder the limits of their commercial success.

Like any music documentary worth its salt, this one loads up on great performance footage, some of it from other music films: Lennear at "The Concert for Bangladesh," Mabry backing the Talking Heads in "Stop Making Sense," and Hill in "This Is It," working with Michael Jackson just before his death. Revisiting these musical moments with attention to the backup singers proves ear-opening, as do the sometimes thoughtful, sometimes poignant interviews.

Most of these women have come a long way, baby. Former Ikette Lennear chuckles about having posed for "Playboy" -- now she's a Spanish teacher. Something tells me she may have a sabbatical in her future: If a "20 Feet from Stardom" tour isn't in the works, someone's sleeping on the job.