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“Twenty Feet From Stardom”: Powerful Voices Cement Background Singers’ Place In History

The gorgeous new documentary, “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” delivers several jolts of insight, including this small one: Women who can hit and bend those beautiful notes have glorious laughs.

Laughter buoys much of this 90-minute film that explores the unheralded world of backup singers. The spotlight falls on Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega and Merry Clayton. “About time, too,” as Bette Midler remarked in 2011 when she introduced Love as a new inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

These women – mostly African-American – sang back up on countless rock classics, adding vocal transcendence to the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and plenty of others. And because they sang the bridge, they – not the stars – are the ones we invariably sang along to.

Expect to get a head rush of revelation.

Many of these singers were preacher’s daughters, notes director Morgan Neville. “These voices make their way from the church onto vinyl,” he says. British legends such as Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker and David Bowie jumped to hire them, partly to import soul and authenticity into their songs. Neville splices in archival footage of all three performers with their backups – and we see and hear with fresh eyes why “Young Americans” sounds so good.

Neville said that this project blew apart his assumption that the voices in the background were less talented than the ones at the front: “Backup singers can blow away lead singers any day of the week, every day of the week.”

The psychology of being a secondary is explored in these women’s stories. “I felt like that if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star,” says a pained Merry Clayton, whose magnificent voice didn’t make her a headliner, despite the best efforts of Lou Adler.

Clayton describes being awakened in the night to record with the Stones – arriving at the studio in silk pajamas and curlers to be handed the music for “Gimme Shelter.” She delivered the immortal “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away.” And it still stuns Jagger, 50 years later, as he listens to it here.

The film tucks in other stunning bits. We learn that Darlene Love—Darlene Love!—cleaned houses to pay her bills before her comeback in the 1980s. We soak in the jazz-saturated richness of Lisa Fischer’s voice, and witness her emphatic joy in singing harmony, even after winning a Grammy.

These women take us places that Auto-Tune will never go. Can I get an Amen?

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