News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

July 19, 2013


July 19--It raises goose bumps and hackles; it chills the spine. Merry Clayton's apocalyptic banshee wail on the 1969 Rolling Stones recording "Gimme Shelter" -- her desperate cry of "Rape! Murder!" -- never fails to stun, no matter how often you've heard the song, with its frightening prophecy of violent end times lurking "just a shot away."

Heard alone, in isolation, without the instrumental backing of Keith Richards and company, Clayton's performance is even more impressive. Director Morgan Neville makes sure you do hear just that in his revealing, inspiring and thoroughly entertaining documentary, "20 Feet from Stardom," a celebration of the "pure expression" of the human voice and an overdue appreciation of the backup vocalists of the rock and soul era whose contributions to many of the most memorable recordings of the past half century too often have been overlooked or even buried: Control-freak producer Phil Spector, for example, credited the 1962 No. 1 pop "He's a Rebel" to the Crystals, even though the lead vocals were by another of his artists, Darlene Love.

Love and Clayton are among about a dozen veteran backup singers of various levels of fame and success invited into the spotlight in "20 Feet from Stardom," which, to its credit, does not suggest that a relative lack of solo stardom means a singer is a victim of music industry injustice. Moving from the background to the center stage microphone requires more than talent; it's "a conceptual leap," according to Bruce Springsteen, one of several heavy hitters recruited by Neville (others include Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting). "You gotta have that narcissism, you gotta have that ego."

"20 Feet from Stardom" is the latest in a series of high-profile music films to reach Memphis theaters in recent years, including "Searching for Sugar Man" (which this year won the Documentary Feature Oscar) and the current "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me." The movie's closest predecessor may be "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" (2002), which profiled the often uncredited musicians who backed the Supremes, the Temptations and other artists on the classic Motown sessions. (In fact, "Standing in the Shadows" and "20 Feet from Stardom" are titles that would fit either film.)

The Los Angeles-based Neville is well-acquainted with Memphis: His previous documentaries -- including several produced in collaboration with local writer-filmmaker Robert Gordon -- include projects about Stax, Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash. Stax is represented in "20 Feet from Stardom" by Mable John, a "Raelette" (backup singer for Ray Charles) who had a 1966 solo hit for the Memphis label titled "Your Good Thing Is About to End."

Like the blended voices of its subjects, the movie harmoniously merges talking-head interviews, new performance footage and archival material. The Ikettes will blow your mind: "I think we were the first action figures of R&B," boasts Claudia Lennear, a former Jagger girlfriend. (Remembering her time with Mick, she muses: "We used to have so much fun, dressing in each other's clothes ...")

Although a few white and a few male backup singers are interviewed, the film becomes a de facto chronicle of the experiences and status of many African-American women in show business, who, like their counterparts in less high-profile professions, too often are treated like "the help," undervalued and exploited. Darlene Love reveals that years after her Spector heyday, she was cleaning houses to make ends meet, vacuuming rugs in a white woman's home while her own powerhouse voice from the family radio.

Love was a member of the Blossoms, one of the first black backup vocal groups to become recording-industry mainstays, according to the film. They could sound "white" or pop when necessary, providing call-and-response seasoning to such disparate hits as Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash" and Frank Sinatra's "That's Life"; but it was the "raw" and "real" nature of their vocals that made these African-American women in demand in the later rock 'n' roll era, when soul became prized over slickness. Says Springsteen of these and other church-trained voices: "They bring a world with them."

"20 Feet from Stardom" is exclusively at the Malco Ridgeway Four.


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