20 Feet From Stardom (PG-13) (91 min.) — Unsung heroes of song get their due in Morgan Neville's documentary, pulling backup vocalists out of the shadows to center stage. Their names are seldom remembered, or even known except for liner notes and introductions by headliners. But their voices, harmonies, hooks and now their stories are unforgettable.
One exception to the anonymity factor is Neville's focus, Darlene Love, who parlayed her reputation as a sublime sessions vocalist into a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career. As a member of the generally overlooked girl group the Blossoms, she caught the ear of producer Phil Spector in the early 1960s, singing on several of his signature hits — including Da Doo Ron Ron and He's a Rebel — while the sound was credited to others. Love speaks with resignation about Spector's desire to be the only star in the recording studio, which she believes cost her the recognition she deserved.
Love's story branches out to that of Merry Clayton, whose career took off with the British invasion, when acts like the Rolling Stones and David Bowie sought a "black sound" in their music. "When the rock 'n' roll world came and said no, we want you to sing, it saved us," Clayton says on camera. "It saved our lives." One of the film's highlights is Clayton's recalling her shocked reaction to her first such gig, squealing the "rape, murder, it's just a shot away" riff for the Stones' Gimme Shelter, and being convinced that helping out Sweet Home Alabama wasn't an endorsement of bigotry.
Neville's documentary rocks regularly with juicy clips focused on Ray Charles' Raelettes, Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes and a young Luther Vandross backing up David Bowie on his Young Americans sessions. Bringing the art form into modern entertainment, Neville tips his hat to recent The Voice contestant Judith Hill, and her involvement with Michael Jackson's ill-fated "This Is It" tour. The movie's talking-head sequences also fascinate, with heads like Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Stevie Wonder doing the talking.
20 Feet From Stardom gets a bit repetitive with its adulation for overlooked talent but maintains such a joyous spirit of rediscovery that you can't complain much. The movie should also expand your next concert experience, urging closer attention to background singers anonymously making the songs what they are. A- (Tampa Theatre)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic