20 Feet From Stardom

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 14, 2014

A woman wearing curlers was summoned out of bed to sing and wail "rape! murder!" in the Rolling Stones' classic "Gimme Shelter." Merry Clayton sang that unforgettable, piercing lament in three takes, yet nobody knows her name.

Filmmaker Morgan Neville shines a light on almost anonymous backup singers in "20 Feet From Stardom."

Neville's 50 oral history interviews netted stories from Darlene Love (like many, a preacher's kid), who co-founded the African-American group the Blossoms in the 60s. The trio quickly became the go-to girls for Elvis to James Brown, on hits such as "The Monster Mash," "The Shoop Shoop Song," and Sinatra's "That's Life."

The Crystals were credited with "Da Doo Ron Ron," but only because psychotic producer Phil Spector routinely stole Love and others' vocals to give to younger girls to lip sync, long before Milli Vanilli. Unsurprisingly, Ike Turner likewise abused vocal talents for the sake of eye candy.

In a poseur "American Idol"/Auto-Tune world, these real craftspeople deserve all of the credit and our attention.

Rock-n-Roll and R&B emerged to "save the singers' lives" following dwindling do-wop work, and the Waters family moved into television and film, from the "Growing Pains" theme, to bird sounds in "Avatar" and the iconic invocation in "The Lion King." Many women attempted solo careers then returned to the back line, where Clayton "sang the crap outta" Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" to assert, and insert, her racial identity.

Immensely gifted interpreter Lisa Fischer took over for friend Clayton, and has been touring with the Stones since 1989. Love, who mentored Clayton, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

Blu-ray extras include "The Buddy System," showing how singers look out for each other; and a Q&A with Clayton, Love and Fischer that more fully explores the industry's sexism and racism (which should have been included in the main film). In a poseur "American Idol"/Auto-Tune world, these real craftspeople deserve all of the credit and our attention. After all, it's the backup folks who provide "the hook that music lovers sing."


"20 Feet From Stardom"
Blu-ray
$16.99
http://twentyfeetfromstardom.com/

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at KarinMcKie.com