Friday, August 30, 2013


What? You haven't seen 20 Feet From Stardom yet? Not even once?

Why are you still sitting there?

Morgan Neville's documentary tribute to the often unheralded, and yet so necessary heroines of rock—the background singers onstage and in the studio—is as incendiary as the voices of these incredible vocalists.

The stories of these primarily black women—how they were used, abused, and/or empowered by the industry, whether or not they dared to take that 20-foot walk into the spotlight, and how they fared—are a remarkable cultural document of four or five rich decades in the pop music scene.

But OMG, the singing! When these ladies open their chops, either on record, or in vintage concert clips, or for Neville's camera in the present day, I promise you will find true religion. You'll rock, you'll roll, and I defy you not to tap or hum or sway along.
Ready to rock: Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer

I came because I love Merry Clayton, whose powerhouse contribution on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is arguably (by me) the most iconic back-up performance of all time. ("Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away, it's just a shot away-e-yay...")

Clayton tells a funny story of being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and escorted to the studio in hair curlers and silk pajamas because the Stones thought the song needed "another voice"—yeah, one that can sing like wildfire!

But every singer in this movie is a treasure. Take Darlene Love, longtime indentured servant to Phil Spector, whose era-defining lead vocals on hits like "He's A Rebel" and "Da Doo Run Run" went uncredited for years in songs attributed to The Crystals, and other artists. Still full of sass and vinegar, and still in full possession of a great set of pipes, Love's induction, at long last, into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame ("...and about time, too!" beams presenter Bette Midler) concludes the movie on a high note.

In some classic '70s footage, Claudia Lennear (allegedly the inspiration for the Stones' "Brown Sugar"), a former Ikette, works out onstage with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell on the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, and leads the back-up choir at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. From the next generation comes the phenomenal Judith Hill, who is shown rehearsing with Michael Jackson (she was chosen as his duet partner) on the ill-fated "This Is It" tour. Hill also sings a soulful composition of her own, "Desperation," accompanying herself on piano, that has "Spotlight" written all over it.

But my favorite in the film (and someone I'd never heard of before) is the divine Lisa Fischer. For years an accomplice of Luther Vandross, a confederate of Sting, and a fixture in every Rolling Stones tour since 1989, Fischer's voice is an incredible instrument of melody, color, and soaring emotion. Private and personal, or big and powerful, trading saucy licks with Mick Jagger onstage, she is a hypnotic performer, not to be missed.

For a little indie doc, this one is breaking records all over the country. Here's the trailer, to get you in the mood. Don't let me find out you missed it!

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