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‘20 Feet From Stardom’ salutes music’s unsung heroes

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RADIUS-TWC presents a documentary directed by Morgan Neville. Running time: 91 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language and sexual material). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.

Updated: August 13, 2013 6:07AM

Most of us are background singers.

Our human nature to give and forgive becomes the connective soundtrack of the documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.”

It tells the rocky stories of some of the music industry’s most respected and giving back-up singers: Darlene Love, who as a member of the Blossoms, sang behind Sam Cooke and Frank Sinatra; Merry Clayton, who contributed the scorching “rape, murder, just a shot away” vocal riff on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 hit “Gimme Shelter”; current Stones backing vocalist Lisa Fischer (since 1989); Tata Vega, rediscovered by Quincy Jones for “The Color Purple”; the terminally colorful ex-Ikette Claudia Linnear, and many others.

Life lessons?

There are plenty in “20 Feet From Stardom.”

Although director Morgan Neville (“Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story” and “Johnny Cash’s America”) snags heavyweights like Bruce Springsteen and a quirky Mick Jagger to talk about the lost art of background singing, it is Dr. Mable John, a former Stax-Tamala Records singer turned preacher who sums up the weight of the job: “Check out your worth,” she says. “Because your worth is more than that.” (John, a Detroit native, is the sister of the late soul singer Little Willie John.)

The documentary tells similarly poignant stories in a fast-paced 91 minutes through interviews, contemporary concert footage and great archival stuff, such as a tripped-out David Bowie singing “Young Americans” with background singer Luther Vandross. Springsteen recalls taking a bus to Philadelphia in 1973 where he met Vandross, who created the backing arrangement for the Bowie soul hit. Fischer also sang background with Vandross. She recalled how Vandross’ style was all about exquisite breath control, which later created the soulful space for his own solo career.

Clayton, who sang on Joe Cocker’s 1968 hit “Feelin’ Alright,” brings up a salient point: the rock ’n’ roll world wanted background singers to sing, instead of having them follow the traditional pop template of “bringing it down.”

One segment follows the young Judith Hill, who was the background singer who sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial service at the Staples Center, and is pursuing a solo career. Meanwhile, Sheryl Crow makes a brief appearance, but there is no mention of her 1987-1989 tour of duty as a Michael Jackson background vocalist.

Apart from the compelling story of Oren Waters of the Waters Family Singers (Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, “The Lion King” soundtrack), there is no commentary from male background singers.

I wanted more Pips!

The backing vocals on “Midnight Train to Georgia,” recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips, are among the most memorable call-and-response sessions of the 1970s.

Neville, however, makes his mission statement clear with the intro of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” featuring the cresting line: “And all the colored girls go doo do doo do doo.” Now that’s back-up singing.

The emotional accessbility of Darlene Love (as well as her Springsteen connection) makes her one of the film’s most compelling threads. Love was marginalized by dictator producer Phil Spector, who even released her material under names of other artists. She tells the story of leaving music and becoming a housekeeper. One day while cleaning a house, she heard “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the sonic rave-up she recorded for the 1963 “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.” That moment got her back in the game.

Love credits her 1982 move to New York from Los Angeles as what resurrected her career. The tip came from Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt. And now her annual appearance in which she sings “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on “The Late Show With David Letterman” has become as much a part of the holiday season as Frank Capra.

“Twenty Feet From Stardom” hits all cylinders when the music tells the story. Don’t miss the end credit of Love singing Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich-Spector’s “One Fine Boy” with Springsteen at her 2010 Hall of Fame induction, and Love, Fischer, Judith Hill and Jo Lawry (Sting) covering the tender Bill Withers hit “Lean on Me” (which also appears on the Columbia Records soundtrack of that event).

I was less of a fan of Neville’s manipulative tricks like spinning LPs, dark lighting and the obvious graphics of pop artist John Baldessari’s dots covering the faces of lead singers. And the film ignores other genres, such as country music. Stories of how the late Bonnie Owens, ex-wife of Buck, was the mother hen of Merle Haggard’s background singers are worth their own documentary.

Nevertheless, from front to back stage, “20 Feet From Stardom” is a compelling look at the spirit of these giving artists as they navigated the rapid musical and social change of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. It is not an easy task, giving your soul to the spirit of one.

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