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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Twenty Feet From Stardom' pushes emotional buttons

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Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer are seen at the mic for a stirring rendition of "Lean on Me" in "Twenty Feet From Stardom."

Twenty Feet From Stardom

(R)

2 and 1/2 out of 4

Early on in "Twenty Feet From Stardom," Bruce Springsteen gives a spot-on explanation as to why there are people like him and others like the handful of featured performers in this film. To paraphrase, he says that when you're up front, it's just yours. You're the CEO of the enterprise and if it works or fails you alone get all the praise or all the blame. It takes a tremendous amount of talent, drive, ego and (no huge surprise) luck to make it big in the music industry.

What seems lost on most of the career backup singers profiled in "Twenty" is that although music is a form of artistic expression with many intangibles, it is, in the end, a business with a bottom line. You might have a big heart and possess heavenly pipes but if you aren't selling what the audience wants to buy you probably won't make it and you're far from alone in this type of situation. Replace the word singer with painter, writer, musician, composer, sculptor, filmmaker, dancer or any other creative label and the result will be the same: most of the people wanting to make a living as an artist simply won't.

With one huge exception, you shouldn't feel sorry for the women profiled in the film -- or the many in the same boat. At one time or another, all of them reached the pinnacle of their chosen field and none of them are currently starving. If you still sing backup for the Rolling Stones, you're doing pretty well. If you've done the same for Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, James Taylor, Sting, Elton John and thousands of others, you'll always find work and get a nice paycheck in the process. If you can't it's only because of your misplaced pride and/or lack of initiative.

At this point it should be made very clear that "Twenty" is entertaining in the same way a Michael Moore movie is entertaining. It will rope you in quick, push all of your emotional buttons, work you into a heated lather, bother you, make you feel sad then happy and generally do everything a documentary film should not.

In addition to creating false sympathy, director Morgan Neville's biggest mistake is including the interviews with Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger. Getting these icons of rock to appear in a low-budget art film was indeed a coup to be sure but also comes with some perhaps unwanted bite. With slightly different spin, Sting echoes Springsteen's concise opinion and Jagger -- who has had professional and/or personal relationships with three of the singers -- isn't exactly the ideal guy to call on for the desired lofty musings. To Neville's credit, he seems to not have filtered or edited the men's frank statements much and it is the closest he gets to being unbiased.

An early scene that hints that "Twenty" is going to take a particularly unsavory social slant with is the inclusion of a '50s era clip of singer Perry Como and three white female backups. A remark is made that while white girls could provide the desired ooh, ah and pitch they couldn't get the rhythm or the choreography right.

Perhaps without even realizing it, Neville includes a solo performance of Merry Clayton -- who delivered the most memorable backup vocal of all-time on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" -- doing a live cover of Neil Young's south-bashing "Southern Man." Later Clayton recalls a gig she took to do backgrounds on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" -- the staple classic that directly responds to the Young lyrics that all but told Young to go pound sand. Clayton goes on to slam the state of Alabama and the band but wasn't quite offended enough to turn down the job.

Neville kind of goes against the thematic grain by dedicating a scant few minutes of screen time to two former backups that made it big: Luther Vandross and Sheryl Crow. These are two singers that had the wherewithal and chutzpah to give up the safe confines of the lower-lit limelight and take a chance. You cannot win if you do not play and hardball isn't the same thing as softball.

Back to that one glaring exception. What Neville should have done instead of making a generic, catch-all movie would have been to craft a film concentrating solely on Darlene Love. If there was ever anyone that got the shaft so repeatedly courtesy of the music industry, it was Love.

Don't know the name? Remember Danny Glover's wife in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise? That was her. Love has been a backup -- and an uncredited lead -- on thousands of songs and her association with wing nut/once-genius/convicted murderer producer Phil Spector alone is worthy of not only another documentary but a full-blown live-action drama. It would dwarf "What's Love Got To Do With It" by comparison and would shine a glaring light on one of, if not the worst instances of talent theft, artistic abuse and mistreatment in all of rock history. (Radius-TWC)