20 Feet From Stardom: Unsung Heroines 

Doo-do-doo delightful documentary

Caution: You may not want to get behind the wheel of a car after seeing 20 Feet From Stardom--director Morgan Neville's intoxicating musical celebration of a documentary. I must admit to being dizzy, perhaps a little high, from a first viewing and I'm jonesing for another fix.

Honestly, my first instinct wasn't to drive home after watching the film, but rather to do some serious damage with my Visa, downloading a seemingly endless playlist: Phil Spector's so-called "wall of sound," anything Ray Charles, David Bowie's "Young Americans" and George Harrison's 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. Quite simply, I appreciate the classics more because of 20 Feet From Stardom.

Lou Reed's iconic "Walk on the Wild Side"--with background vocals by a girl group called Thunderthighs--pretty much says it all: "And the colored girls go / Doo do doo / doo do doo / doo do doo."

Borderline racist, Reed's 1972 lyric appropriately launches Neville's documentary by alluding to that 20-foot chasm separating background singers from center-stage stardom.

"It's a bit of a walk from back by the drummer. A walk to the front is complicated. It's more of a mental leap than a physical act of singing. It's a conceptual leap," says Bruce Springsteen, one of the film's long list of superstars paying due respect to the genius of their background vocalists.

Springsteen, Sting, Bowie and Jagger all serve as the film's prime witnesses: Without the (almost always female) background singers, a headliner is nothing but an American Idol wannabe. In fact, the documentary lays bare how feckless today's televised singing competitions are, lacking in sophistication or confluence of lyric and melody that background singers bring to the party.

20 Feet From Stardom perfectly chronicles the moments when black female background vocalists provided the rocket fuel to launch the soundtrack of the late 20th century. Previously, almost-always white female background singers sang notes as written. But when a group called The Blossoms, including the amazing Darlene Love, stepped into a studio in the late 1950s, we had liftoff.

It's a particular delight to watch the Blossoms (aka The Playgirls, aka The Rollettes) sit in their old recording studio as song after song is played, featuring their background vocals: The Crystals "Da Doo Ron Ron," Sinatra's "That's Life," Betty Everett's "It's In His Kiss." James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Elvis and everyone else followed.

But for all of the rhythm in rhythm and blues, there is plenty of blues, too.

In the film's most heartbreaking passage, Love recalls years after the 1963 recording of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"--which is the greatest Christmas pop song ever, in my estimation--she heard the song coming from another room.

"At the time, the only thing I thought I could do to make a little money to survive was cleaning houses in Los Angeles," said Love, recalling the late 1970s. "And then one Christmas, I was cleaning a bathroom and I heard 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' on the radio."

Love put down her mop, went back to New York City and, shortly thereafter, was invited as a guest on the David Letterman show to sing the Christmas classic. She's been singing it every holiday since on Letterman's show, for more than 25 years.

20 Feet From Stardom is a double barrel shotgun of laughter and tears, and I can't recommend it enough. But be warned, Amazon or iTunes will soon have a good chunk of your wallet.

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20 Feet From Stardom
Rated PG-13 · 90 minutes · 2013
Director: Morgan Neville
Producer: Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers, Morgan Neville, George Conrades, Art Bilger, Peter Morton and Joel Ehrenkranz
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