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updated: 7/11/2013 7:42 AM

'Stardom' doc grabs the limelight

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  • Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer are three of many backup singers profiled in Morgan Neville's documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom."

    Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer are three of many backup singers profiled in Morgan Neville's documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom."

  • Morton Grove native Jeff Garlin stars in "Dealin' With Idiots," which screens at Chicago's Music Box Theatre.

    Morton Grove native Jeff Garlin stars in "Dealin' With Idiots," which screens at Chicago's Music Box Theatre.

  • Video: "Twenty Feet From Stardom"


Mini-review: 'Twenty Feet From Stardom'

Legendary singer Darlene Love had been busy cleaning someone's bathroom when she heard her own voice coming from a radio playing one of her hit Christmas songs.

What? The powder keg vocalist of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," "All Alone on Christmas" and "He's a Rebel" reduced to cleaning bathrooms for income?

This is just one of many gotcha moments to be had in Morgan Neville's illuminating and celebratory documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom," a movie that dispenses overdue judicious recognition upon the unheralded heroines (and heroes) of modern recorded music: the backup singers.

Besides, Love, "Twenty Feet" pays tribute to such luminous vocalists as Tata Vega, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer as it attempts to shine a limelight on the (mostly black) talent in the shadows of (mostly white) recording studios.

(Did you know that Love sang lead vocal on "He's a Rebel," but all the credit went to the Crystals, who lip-synced her song in concerts?)

This is a fascinating doc for pop, soul, R&B and rock fans, for it peels back the often unfair layers of the music business like the skins on an onion. Sometimes, it'll make you cry to witness how terribly these talents were treated. Especially by record mogul Phil Spector, who comes off as a really bad guy given to power trips and petty manipulations of his contracted entertainers.

Headliners Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger offer profuse praise and admiration for their backup singers, talents who had to stifle their individuality to achieve perfect background audio blends.

Singing backup is tough for some, the doc points out, especially for artists with narcissistic egos. Many singers say they were content to achieve a communal sense of artistry. Others, such as Judith Hill, constantly strive to break out of the herd for the spotlight.

"Twenty Feet" offers up all sorts of backstage tales out of school, with Merry Clayton recalling how she infamously screamed "Rape! Murder!" on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" album. Or how Love supplemented her income by taking movie roles such as Danny Glover's wife in the "Lethal Weapon" action films.

Then there's the music itself -- divine segments of veteran artists creating honey for the ears in one of the most enjoyable documentaries I've ever seen -- and heard.

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" opens at the Century Centre Cinema in Chicago. Rated PG-13 for language and sexual situations. 89 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Zombies at Harper!

The undead of Harper College will stage a zombie flash mob (with femur drumsticks!) to celebrate the arrival of zombie expert Max Brooks, author of "World War Z," the source material for Brad Pitt's new horror/action movie.

If I can get to the stage without being bitten, I'll introduce Brooks when he speaks at 7 p.m. Friday, July 12, at the Performing Arts Center at Palatine's Harper College.

Brooks, the son of legendary comedian Mel Brooks and the late actress Anne Bancroft, has written two acclaimed best-sellers: "The Zombie Survival Guide" (2003) and "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War." He'll talk about his work as a "Saturday Night Live" writer, his undead experiences and what it feels like to have Brad Pitt make a movie out of his novel.

Admission costs $5. (847) 925-6100 or

Film notes

• Happy first-week anniversary to the new Star Cinema Grill, the dine-in movie theater at 53 S. Evergreen St., Arlington Heights!

Formerly the Arlington Theaters, Star Cinema opened last weekend with new seating and tables designed for food served during the movies. Also new: a bar in the lobby and an improved ticket window. Go to chicago.starcinema

• Morton Grove native Jeff Garlin directed, co-wrote and stars in the comedy "Dealin' With Idiots," opening this weekend at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. Garlin (who co-stars with Glenview native Jami Gertz and Naperville native Bob Odenkirk) will be at the Music Box to introduce his movie at 7:20 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday, July 12-13. Garlin plays a comedian hoping to find inspiration for his next movie by observing the colorful parents of his son's baseball team. Go to musicbox

• Mary Fishman's documentary "Band of Sisters" reports on the work of two nuns -- Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch -- advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrant detainees in the McHenry County Jail. You can see "Band of Sisters" at 7 p.m. Friday, July 12, at the Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake. Tickets cost $10 at the box office. Call (815) 356-9212 to reserve tickets. Murphy and Persch will conduct a Q-and-A after the film. Go to

• Stop me if you've heard this one before: a ventriloquist, a little person and a strongman walk into a pet store and ... no joke, turn it into a burglary ring headquarters! It's from Tod Browning's 1925 silent classic "The Unholy Three." The immortal Lon Chaney joins Harry Earles and Victor McLaglen in this atmospheric film made six years before Browning directed Bela Lugosi in "Dracula" (and seven years before Browning's widely banned horror movie "Freaks"). Music Box Theatre's Silent Cinema Series presents this movie in 35 mm. on the silver screen with live musical accompaniment at noon, Saturday, July 13.

• Attention parents of kids interested in movies! Two programs of animated and live-action short films from around the world will be presented at 9:30 and 11 a.m. Saturday, July 13, at Facets Multi-Media, 1517 W. Fullerton, Chicago.

Tickets at the box office cost $7 for adults; $5 for kids. Get tickets online at (773) 281-9075.

• Also this weekend, the Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park (where some Northwest suburbanites go for their art house fixes) reopens with a full-service bar and lounge, an expanded concessions menu and leather seats. It's the first Illinois theater to offer the "hearing loop system" for the hearing-impaired, a device that eliminates the need for a headset.

Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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