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Relegated to Background

Film shines light on singers between obscurity and fame

Opinionated Judge, Darleen Ortega | 7/10/2013, 10:16 a.m.
Our Opinionated Judge covers "20 Feet from Stardom"
Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer in "20 Feet from Stardom" (Tremolo Productions) Opinionated Judge, Darleen Ortega

At the start of "20 Feet from Stardom," which opened in Portland on Friday, the camera pans over vintage album covers and photographs, with dots applied to the faces of the lead singers to emphasize the faces of the unknown singers backing them. As accompaniment, Lou Reed sings "Walk on the Wild Side," with its notorious lyric, "and the colored girls sing/doo-da-doo, da-doo, doo doo doo doo..."-- and indeed -- most of those backing vocalists are African-American women.

As this inspiring and subtly subversive documentary reveals, you know the voices of these women; it is frequently the lines they sang (and originated) with which you sing along when you hear some of the biggest hits of the last 50 years. Director Morgan Neville aims to retrain your ears, and eyes, to hear and appreciate these remarkable vocalists, and to reflect on, and to question, the contrast between their obscurity and the fame of those credited for making that music great.

Much of the first part of the film is devoted to introducing you to these singers. Darlene Love, whose voice you'll recognize from any number of hits dating back to the 1960s, is credited with being an important driver of a shift from a more vanilla sound, with white women doing generic backing vocals, to a more lively and soulful, call-and-response style with roots in the black church. Indeed, most of these singers got their start in Gospel choirs and many were preacher's daughters.

The documentary takes time to savor the artistry of the singers, with clips from past performances and interviews deconstructing and reminiscing about their creative process. Their voices are versatile and rich and varied, and one of the film's deep pleasures is just listening to them sing and explain their craft.

Several members of the Waters family, who have accompanied everything from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to The Lion King, recreate some of their signature contributions. Merry Clayton describes being summoned to a recording studio in the middle of the night, very pregnant and her hair in curlers, to sing with a British group unknown to her. She found the lyrics curious, but caught their vibe, added her own amazing spin, and produced the iconic "Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away" sequence in the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." The respect that crosses Mick Jagger's face as he listens to her vocal some 40 years later is unmistakable.

That intersection with the hugely successful artists who have worked with these women is an important aspect of the film. Jagger describes the fun he had working with Claudia Lennear, the gorgeous former "Ikette" who traveled with the Stones and is thought to have inspired their hit, "Brown Sugar." Both Jagger and Sting speak admiringly of Lisa Fischer, a singer of unearthly talent and range who has toured with both of them.

Stevie Wonder and Tata Vega recall their first encounter, when he recognized their vocal connection, and Wonder muses about the prospects for Judith Hill, an astounding younger vocalist who was preparing to tour with Michael Jackson when he died and has inspired short spikes of interest (as when she sang at Jackson's funeral), but has yet to make a record deal.