Tuesday, June 18, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom

I discommend Morgan Neville's music documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," and nobody's more surprised about it than I. The world of backup singers strikes me as fertile ground for a terrific film, but what's onscreen rarely set my toes to tapping or shed much light on these hidden-in-plain-sight talents. Neville's most commendable achievement is to have gathered all the leading backups of modern popular music, as well as several superstars (Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder). Cold fact, though: About 75 minutes in, iPhones across the theater lit up with folks checking the time.

For a film about music, nothing makes you leave the theater humming or bopping along to it. That's fairly amazing given that when we sing along to a song on the radio, we're almost always singing along with the backups, who do the hooks that make hits hits. A few stories have real poignancy, as when Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love, the uncredited voice of the Crystals' "He's a Rebel" and others, stuck in anonymity for decades under contract to Phil Spector, left the business and took a job cleaning houses, and one Christmas heard her own holiday song come over the radio. But there's surprisingly little humor to most of the anecdotes and not much insight into that short but vast 20-foot walk to center stage.

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