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“And the colored girls go, ‘Doo do doo do doo doo do do doo ...’ ”
Catchy, sing-along-able, one of the most famous choruses in pop music. It’s from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the first song you hear in this hip documentary about those “colored girls,” Reed’s supposedly controversial term for backup singers. You know, the folks who stand behind the lead singer and provide responses to the singer’s calls or give the songs layers of shimmering harmonies.
Most of us don’t know most of their names, but we sure do know a lot of the featured singers in this documentary. We get gushing tributes to the folks who make their songs sound better from Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Mick Jagger and many others. Then we hear from the folks they’re talking about: longtime legends such as Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, as well as current backup stars Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill.
Director Morgan Neville, who has made music documentaries with subjects ranging from Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, keeps “20 Feet” moving by jumping back and forth between stars and non-stars, and from live concert appearances to studio sessions. The film’s main strength is in letting those non-stars, whose careers are described as being ones where “you don’t hold on to your own individual vocal persona, you blend in,” talk about how they got into the business, what they’re doing and what they’d like to do.
Darlene Love, who’s now 74, was a founding member of the Blossoms, the group that actually recorded the Phil Spector-produced “He’s a Rebel.” But the record was released under the group name the Crystals, so Love and her fellow Blossoms – Fanita James and Jean King – never got the credit, or the stardom, they deserved. But they worked a lot. Love reveals that the trio sang backup on Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash” and countless others. A highlight of the film is a reunion of the group, harmonizing in the studio today.
Merry Clayton, another great singer who never got the gold ring on her own, is best known for belting out seven famous words accredited to Keith Richards: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away,” from “Gimme Shelter.” She tells the story of how she became involved in that late-night recording session, as does Jagger. She also tells of how, very early on in her career, she really wanted to be a Raelette – one of Ray Charles’ female backup singers – and one day got that call, too.
There’s plenty of personal history spread throughout the film, but that’s accompanied by a general music history, with revelations that both Sheryl Crow and Luther Vandross got their starts singing backup. Check out the cool footage of Vandross giving it his all behind David Bowie on “Young Americans.” Better yet, look at and listen to the incredible sight and sound of Ike and Tina Turner’s backup gals the Ikettes, whose actions clarify the theory that people aren’t just up there on the stage singing, they are also entertaining.
Page 2 of 2 - Of the newer folks, the cameras follow the always busy Lisa Fischer, who has been part if the Stones’ live lineup since their 1989 “Steel Wheels” tour, and tabs are kept on Judith Hill, who was about to break out of the pack as Michael Jackson’s main backup singer when that whole scene came to a sudden end.
There’s a bittersweet aura to much of this, since so many of these artists don’t make it on their own, though they all certainly love what they do. But you can’t think about that too much, since your toes will be tapping so fast and hard.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
20 FEET FROM STARDOM
Directed by Morgan Neville
With Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer