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'20 Feet' elevates those often in background

| Thursday, July 4, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Merry Clayton in '20 Feet from Stardom'

We've sung along with their parts, often the catchiest hooks in the most popular songs of the day.

Now, in the massively entertaining and heartfelt documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” audiences meet the most memorable voices in the world of backup singers. They perform with world-famous musical acts, but theirs are not household names. Their stories, however, are inspiring, heartbreaking and enthralling.

Director Morgan Neville intersperses concert footage with intimate interviews in a rousing celebration of these unsung heroes and their nimble vocal instruments. As they reflect on career joys, sacrifices and conflicts, the singers compellingly discuss race, gender, artistry and ambition.

Several African-American singers were ministers' daughters, and gospel traditions informed their soulful sounds. “Think about Lou Reed and ‘Walk on the Wild Side,' that iconic song with the line that makes a lot of people uncomfortable because it says ‘colored girls,' ” says Janice Pendarvis, who has sung with Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. “But what is he referencing? The fact that there's a power to these women that stand on stage and sing with the guys.”

Darlene Love, 70, endured some devastating setbacks after beginning her career at age 18. Groomed as a lead singer by Phil Spector, her un-credited voice was used in top hits of the '60s.

“It's pretty debilitating to the spirit to see somebody else on television lip-syncing to the song you recorded,” Love says.

When her career faltered, she cleaned houses for a living. Her buoyant charm and infectious laugh jump off the screen.

Then there's Merry Clayton, one of Ray Charles' Raelettes and the haunting vocal force belting out “Rape, murder! It's just a shot away,” on the Rolling Stones' ‘Gimme Shelter.' She reminisces about how the band came to pick her up at home in the middle of the night. She was pregnant, in pajamas and getting ready to go to bed.

Once they got to the studio, “I said to myself, ‘I'm going to blow them out of this room,' ” she says.

As the women reminisce, Neville finds the perfect archival performances to bring those memories to life. The stars they perform with — Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting — chime in, rounding out anecdotes and singing the praises of the voices that bolster their own. The film ponders the vagaries of the business, as well as innate talent.

“To me there's no more heavenly instrument than the voice,” says Sheryl Crow, who was once a backup singer for Michael Jackson, Don Henley and others stars. “There are so many great singers who are such a massive presence on so many rock records, people whose names we don't necessarily know, but who had a huge impact.”

That's the beauty of this exquisite documentary — now we know their names and can celebrate their contributions.

Claudia Puig is a staff writer for USA Today.

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