I’ve known Darlene Love for years as Danny Glover’s wife Trish in the popular “Lethal Weapon” series. What I didn’t realize, until seeing award-winning director Morgan Neville’s heart-breaking and triumphant documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” is that I also grew up listening to Darlene Love’s thunderbolt voice on many rock and R&B classics where she didn’t receive any credit.
Reminiscent of “Standing in The Shadows of Motown (‘02),” “20 Feet From Stardom” is an insightful true story of the unsung background performers stuck in anonymity while others take the bows and fame. The Crystals took the accolades for “He’s a Rebel” (’62), when it was actually Darlene Love's booming lead vocals and her group the Blossoms that rocked the charts. And it was Mary Clayton's haunting vocals (“Rape, murder is just a shot away.”) on the Rolling Stones' song “Give Me Shelter.”
Backing up some of the greatest musical legends, Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Sting and others, Neville matches faces with the voices we’ve listened to for decades, i.e. Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love and Tata Vega. The singers recount their conflicts, sacrifices and rewards as background vocals to many performers -- some of who are less talented than themselves.
The singers punctuate the fact that like many performing artists, it takes more than talent to succeed. You have to have the ego to battle racism, bad luck, shady producers etc., and you have to have drive. Grammy-winner Lisa Fischer (back up for Luther Vandross) and Judith Hill (back up for Michael Jackson) tried solo careers, but couldn’t get out of the “quicksand” (as Hill puts it) of background singing.
Neville paints a marvelous portrait of the struggles and triumphants of these unsung singers. And thanks to him, they finally get their due.
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