June 28--Documentary. Starring Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Mick Jagger. Directed by Morgan Neville. (PG-13. 90 minutes.)
There's a lack of glamour to Lisa Fischer's life that's disarming.
One of the background singers profiled in "Twenty Feet From Stardom," she lives in a modest apartment, travels in a reliable car and makes going on tour with Sting and the Rolling Stones look like anything but a fairy tale. She loves singing too much for it to be a grind. But it's definitely work.
Directed by Morgan Neville, the film festival favorite is a genuine crowd pleaser, meant to right a few wrongs in the music industry, offer a window into the lives of some hard-charging entertainers, and above all make audiences leave the theater humming a song.
Depth is not a strength in the film, which covers American music history from the dawn of rock forward in barely an hour and a half. But after hearing the ultimate musical survivor tale of Darlene Love -- from making hit records without receiving credit, to cleaning houses, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- it's hard to imagine audiences thinking they didn't get their money's worth.
The project was driven by the late producer Gil Friesen, longtime executive at A&M Records, who was known as an ally to the artists. "Twenty Feet From Stardom" is filled with recognizable names, including interviews with a relaxed Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow and Sting.
But the spotlight shines squarely on the surviving background singers of the 1960s and 1970s, including Love and Merry Clayton, whose modern-day perspective is enhanced by wonderful background footage and dramatic recollections. (Clayton's description of her "Gimme Shelter" recording session -- last minute and joyously lacking in glamour -- is so well told it feels like live action.) Whether it was unscrupulous white music executives or Ike Turner, there seemed to be a line of vultures waiting to exploit these singers. And yet their musical legacy survived.
Neville contrasts their pioneering struggle with the next generation of singers. The lucky ones, like Fischer, love what they do, and consider their destination a calling. The unlucky ones can spend a lifetime chasing a dream that's out of their reach, often for reasons that defy fairness and logic.
Fischer is a wonderful guide, letting us wake up with her, and explaining her satisfaction in a genuine way. Including still-struggling singer Judith Hill in the group seems like more of a misstep; the youngster continues to chase diva dreams that her counterparts left behind. (Hill's parts in "Twenty Feet From Stardom" were filmed before her 2013 appearances on TV's "The Voice.")
Neville and Friesen had access, but they must have decided early on that this wouldn't be a salacious tell-all. Phil Spector is one of few in the industry who comes off poorly. Above all, a passion for music shines through -- from both the filmmakers and their subjects. It's a hardworking documentary that has the makings of a breakout summer hit.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
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