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20 Feet From Stardom

meet the unsung heroes behind the greatest music of our time

Entertainment stars blaze brightly and often burn out, like the celestial bodies above them. At least they get a chance to sparkle, if only for a while. But what of the unknown talents who just miss the brass ring? Their fate can be a peculiar mix of thwarted ambition and cult appreciation, of stardom beyond reach but still offering a warming glow. It’s the bittersweet subject of Twenty Feet from Stardom. You know all those doo-doo-doos and whoa-whoas-whoas you hear in pop hits? Without them, supplied by the likes of Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, you likely wouldn’t be singing along to the songs you hear on your car radio. Morgan Neville’s doo-doo-delightful Twenty Feet from Stardom, titled for what Bruce Springsteen calls “a complicated walk” from backstage to front stage, shines the spotlight on unsung divas. They’re the ones doing the heavy harmonic lifting on such tunes as “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, recently named the band’s best song by Rolling Stone magazine. Merry Clayton sang the tune’s blood-curdling hook, “Rape . . . murder . . . It’s just a shot away!” — and she did it while pregnant and after being woken from a deep sleep. Clayton’s contributions to “Gimme Shelter” are currently being recreated by Lisa Fischer, one of the Stones’ touring backup singers, on the band’s 50th anniversary concert series. Fischer is also interviewed for the doc. Next to raw talent, versatility seems to be the prerequisite for success as a backup singer. Clayton also sang on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s southern-rock hit “Sweet Home Alabama” and can also been heard on several tracks of Neil Young’s self-titled 1968 album debut. Nobody tops Darlene Love, though, for crossing musical lines. As a member of the 1960s girl group the Blossoms and as a solo act, she’s backed everybody from Doris Day to Marvin Gaye, and from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys. She’s best known for working with producer Phil Spector on such pop classics as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “He’s a Rebel” and the Christmas standard “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Love was finally recognized by the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, but for a spell she had to pay the rent by cleaning houses. “My life has been all about trying to make a success of the gift that I had,” she says wistfully, a sentiment shared by other women in the film, who found personal stardom forever elusive. Not every backup singer feels the same way. Sheryl Crow used to sing behind Michael Jackson before her breakout success as a singer-songwriter in the mid-1990s. The late Luther Vandross, meanwhile, backed up David Bowie on his hit “Young Americans” before his own star began to ascend. Rock balladeer Sting, who along with Springsteen and Mick Jagger gives belated thanks in the film to the ladies behind them, comments on the fickle nature of fame: “It’s not about fairness. It’s not about talent. It’s about luck.” Courtesy: Peter Howell, The Toronto StarOfficial Trailer
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Morgan Neville
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