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20 Feet From Stardom

Life is unfair, and the music industry is worse. If there were a rubric to figure out what makes one performer a household name and the other just another name in the liner notes, the history of pop would read much differently. Turning the spotlight on several career backup singers, Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom shows, with great warmth and color, what it might sound like. These are voices and personalities every bit as big as Tina’s and Aretha’s but that, through the vagaries of fate more than anything else, never made what Bruce Springsteen calls “the long walk” from the back of the stage to the front. Only Sheryl Crow, it seems, fully shed the stigma of being a supporting player. Others have come frustratingly close: Lisa Fischer won a Grammy in 1992 but still has to wait in line at the post office. Merry Clayton helped make “Gimme Shelter” into the Stones’ finest moment but never had a major hit herself. Darlene Love, a protégée and plaything of Phil Spector, is the most recognizable, though that’s mostly because she played Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, but only after the surreal experience of hearing her voice wafting from the radio in a house she’d been hired to clean. Most are resigned to their roles in the musical ecosystem, content to have sacrificed their own aspirations for the sake of elevating the art itself. Whether that’s noble or a con, Neville never judges. He just lets them sing. And, in a more perfect universe, that would be enough.

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  • Release Date: Tuesday, July 2, 2013
  • Critic's Score: A-
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