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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Watching “20 Feet From Stardom”

During my vacation, my dad and I worked on a crossword puzzle together in which one of the clues was “hit song by The Crystals.” I’m not too familiar with the oeuvre of The Crystals, but eventually I figured it out: the hit pop song “He’s a Rebel.” After watching the new documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom” I’ve decided that the crossword puzzle needs to be corrected. The lead vocals for “He’s a Rebel” were actually provided by a woman named Darlene Love.

Love is one of the many backup singers featured in “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” an entertaining documentary that shines the spotlight on some of the greatest, yet largely unheralded, backup singers of all time. I confess: Even though I love music, I’d never really given backup singers much thought. Which was clearly a mistake. Without backup singers, many of the greatest songs in rock history simply wouldn’t be that great. “20 Feet From Stardom” did something I didn’t think was possible: It made me hear classics such as the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and even Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” in a completely new way.

In addition to featuring great music, “Twenty Feet From Stardom” also offers a sharp critique of race and the music industry without beating viewers over the head. We can see that these little-known backup singers with terrific voices are mostly African-American women: Merry Clayton, who sang with Ray Charles and Elvis Presley and is best known for her duet with Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter,” Tata Vega, who has sung with Stevie Wonder and Elton John, Lisa Fischer, who tours with the Rolling Stones and Sting, Judith Hill, who was set to go on tour with Michael Jackson when he died and is now trying to make it as a soloist, and, of course, Love.

Love’s story is important because it is a success story: Love, like the other women feature in the film, struggled to make it as a soloist, failing to become the household name she believed she was destined to become. But after a stint cleaning houses, she returned to music and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These scenes make it easier to watch a knockout singer like Claudia Lennear fade into obscurity after backing stars such as Ike and Tina Turner and Joe Cocker. (Today Lennear is a Spanish teacher.)

Directed Morgan Neville, “Twenty Feet From Stardom” covers a lot of ground, and so it doesn’t always delve as deeply into certain corners of music history as I might have liked. For instance, I wouldn’t have minded a longer chapter on the civil rights movement: The footages of the protests and marches of that era are exciting and galvanizing, and anecdotes from singers such as Clayton, who defiantly explains why she decided to sing backup on “Sweet Home Alabama” after initially rejecting the idea, are pretty interesting.

Overall, “Twenty Feet From Stardom” packs a lot of information into its 89-minute runtime: We learn why so many great singers came out of the black church, why some people are more comfortable being backup singers, while others strive for a solo career, and a little more than we already knew about how the music industry uses and abuses young talent. Most of the rock stars interviewed in the film come off pretty well: Bruce Springsteen, Sting and even Mick Jagger are all sharp people who can recognize talent. Unsurprisingly, Phil Spector and Ike Turner come across as creeps — bigger creeps, perhaps, than I already thought they were.

“Twenty Feet From Stardom” is the rare film in which the stars are the complementary players, and the backups take center stage. It’s rich and educational, full of heart and humanity. And it contains a lot of terrific music — so much that you’re guaranteed to leave the theater humming.

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