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Laramie Movie Scope:
20 Feet from Stardom

The voices we've all heard from background faces

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2013) Back-up singers, predominantly African-American females, "blend and mesh with other voices" - "and the colored girls say do-do, do-do, do-do " - and "take very little credit." The first African-American backup singers working in the studios were The Blossoms - Darlene (Wright) Love, Fanita James, and Jean King. They had a gift, a "love of music," for finding their part and harmonizing, which they learned from church, call-and-response, gospel songs, that became secularized and sexualized.

The lead voice on "He's a Rebel" by The Crystals is actually Darlene's. Along with the Waters family, if a major release had female backup singers, Darlene's voice was almost assuredly there.

From being one of the four ladies in The Raelettes with Ray Charles, Merry Clayton went on to sing - "Rape. Murder. It's just a shot away" - a duet ("a whole new voice out there") with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones' song "Gimme Shelter." She's also in the background for Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."

The incredible powerhouse voice of Lisa Fischer ("she's as good as it gets" and "a freak of nature") sings scat - her ghostly vocalizing on Sting's "Hounds of Winter" - emphasizing that it's sharing, not competition. "We come in and sing the hooks," says Janice Pendarvis. They sacrificed individuality to blend, producing a "transformative sound" as the music grew progressively more complex and sophisticated.

Among others, such as Tata Vega and Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear ("the really hot one of the Ikettes," who were eye candy, dancing in their skimpy costumes) made an attempt to come forward out of the shadows as a solo artist, but as Bruce Springsteen remarks: "It can be a pretty long walk," demanding energy, ego, narcissism, to the front of the stage.

A singer depends on a songwriter as well as someone who knows how to feature her voice and create a hit arrangement. Circumstances and luck, adds Sting, plus spiritual work to get there. Though she recorded three albums, believing if she put her whole heart and soul into the songs they would just soar her to stardom - "We did everything possible, and it just didn't take," admits producer Lou Adler - Merry Clayton's star didn't rise to the heights.

Director Morgan Neville interviews various recording artists (Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin, Michael Jackson) and displays archival footage of performances (David Bowie, Luther Vandross, Concert for Bangladesh, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker) for a wall of sound and images.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2014 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)