‘20 Feet from Stardom’: putting back-up singers front and center

twentyfeetMorgan Neville has taken a rather simple notion and produced one of the best music documentaries of recent years.

“20 Feet from Stardom” applies the lessons learned from Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line” to the lives led by the often unsung women and men who have worked as back-up singers to stars like Tina Turner and Ray Charles, and star groups such as The Rolling Stones.

There are some sad show business stories told in “20 Feet” but the overwhelming emotion in the film is joy — the joy that great singers like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton have found in their careers and the joy that audiences feel listening to some of the most exhilarating pop music of the 20th century.

Education and entertainment have rarely been combined with the power that this movie attains as we hear the stories of these amazing singers who boosted the recordings of so many stars, and then listen to the work they did many decades ago (before electronics became as important as singing talent in studio recordings).

One of the ironies in the marketing of the film is that the advertisements tout the presence of Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Sting and Bruce Sprinsgteen, the stars who have been “20 feet” from twentyfeet1the until-now unsung talents the documentary focuses on.

Jagger is his usual coy self, but what he isn’t able to express in his interview comes though loud and clear in the excerpts from “Gimme Shelter” we hear with Merry Clayton putting her own indelible stamp on the song (the singer makes such a strong impression in that recording that it’s hard to label what she does as “back-up”).

“20 Feet from Stardom” is packed with marvelous anecdotes about the craziness and corruption of the music business. Darlene Love brings wicked humor to her accounts of providing crucial vocals to the recordings of a group she never sang with live — The Crystals. Like so many other singers of her era, Love has more than a few stories to tell about the producer/killer Phil Spector and his mad genius in creating the “wall of sound” style that has been endlessly replicated by other artists.

The summer of 2013 has been pretty wretched in terms of mainstream multiplex fare, but “20 Feet from Stardom” is a sensational experience worth searching out at your local arthouse.

(“20 Feet from Stardom” is playing at the Avon, Stamford; Garden Cinemas, Norwalk)

Joe Meyers