July 12--The joyous music documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom" is the opposite of Diana Vreeland's famous comment about Hitler's mustache ("It was just wrong, you know?"). Just about everything in this movie is right. And anybody who gives a rip about unsung heroines of popular music and giving credit when credit's overdue had better come up with a good excuse not to see it.
It's 90 minutes of pure satisfaction, even when the stories reveal the frustrations along with the rewards of a life lived just north, east or west of the sweetest part of the spotlight. Five women take center stage (about time!) in this doc: Darlene Love, one of the Blossoms and a backup singer for everyone from Dionne Warwick to Frank Sinatra; Merry Clayton, heard most indelibly on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"; Lisa Fischer, now touring with the Stones; Tata Vega, a '70s Motown artist summarily dropped from the label once upon a time, who tours with Elton John; and Judith Hill, a former Michael Jackson backup (she sang "Heal the World" at his memorial service), is now, like so many, trying to carve out a solo career for herself.
To these five, the movie adds commentary from a dozen more, including Jo Lawry (Sting's backup), Cindy Mizelle (heard live and on albums with Luther Vandross and Steely Dan) and Dr. Mable John (a former Raelette). So many of these women grew up in the church, praising the skies in song. "Twenty Feet From Stardom" takes care, however, to differentiate the singers' stories and to remind the casual viewer that there was a difference between a Blossom and a Raelette, and a Raelette and one of Ike & Tina Turner's maniacally sexy backups.
Director Morgan Neville worked closely with producer Gil Friesen (a longtime A&M Records executive and talent spotter, who died in December) to find the right people for this documentary. In popular culture, the lot of the backup vocalist is the stuff of noisy tragedy-turned-triumph, a la "Dreamgirls." This movie knows better. Yes, for every star there are five more also-rans and maybe-next-times. But there is honor and glory in being part of the blend. And, at the film's midpoint, when Clayton talks about the late-night recording session in 1969 of "Gimme Shelter," the memory takes on the glow of myth.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and sexual material)
Running time: 1:30
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