Movie review: ‘20 Feet From Stardom’ shifts spotlight

Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.July 26, 2013 

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Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer sing a stirring rendition of “Lean on Me” in “20 Feet From Stardom.”

  • 20 FEET FROM STARDOM ••• 1/2•

    Rated: PG-13 for some strong language and sexual material. Starring: Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill. Director: Morgan Neville. Running time: 91 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

They’re the “da-doo-ron-rons” and the “ooh-baby-babies.” They’re background singers. They’re amazing. And they spent their careers “20 Feet From Stardom.”

The centerpiece of the year’s most entertaining documentary is a scene in which the camera shifts between Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton, in separate recording studios, as they listen to the Rolling Stones’ iconic “Gimme Shelter.” They’re listening to the backing vocal on the track, the part where Clayton must have torn the roof off the studio with her blistering wail of “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!”

Both singers are blown away by the power of the track, and you will be, too.

“20 Feet From Stardom” includes clips of and interviews with Clayton, Darlene Love and several other background singers, most of them women of color. Their takes on their careers range from being frustrated at not getting a chance at a solo record to contentedly pursuing a craft that allows them to do what they love.

As the film proudly notes, when Lou Reed sings the lyric, “and the colored girls sang ...” in his “Walk on the Wild Side,” the “girls” he’s talking about are the women of “20 Feet From Stardom.”

The documentary also includes interviews with the featured artists whose work has been enriched by these background vocalists. The best of the superstars may be Bruce Springsteen, who reminisces about being invited to recording sessions for David Bowie’s “Young Americans” album and about figuring out why, no matter what he tried, he couldn’t duplicate the famous Wall of Sound from records made by producer Phil Spector.

Wisely, though, director Morgan Neville doesn’t let “20 Feet From Stardom” spend too much time with Springsteen, Jagger and their already-well-publicized ilk. The movie is firmly focused on the great stories and great voices of its background singers, finally pushed into the foreground where they richly deserve to be.

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