Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 30th, 2020
Streetlight Harmonies (Brent Wilson, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Life could be a dream
If I could take you up in paradise up above (sh-boom)
If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love
Life could be a dream sweetheart.
– “Sh-Boom,” The Chords (1954)
The most interesting part of director Brent Wilson’s new documentary Streetlight Harmonies comes as his many talking-head interview subjects discuss the way in which doo-wop music transitioned from African-American singing groups to the white cultural mainstream (as it was then defined). Given how much this pattern has replicated itself time and again, from jazz (and before) to rock ‘n roll (and after), the conversation around this particular tradition’s trajectory elevates the movie’s sometimes overly dense specificity to a profound meditation on more universal truths. For some of those speaking, there is no rancor, just a statement of fact; for others, however, there’s a repeated lamentation of how this happens over and over again. Still, art is about influence, and so beyond the unfortunate racist tendencies of our nation (which is hardly alone), it can also be interesting to hear and see how one kind of melodic style is adopted by others and transformed (compare the above version of “Sh-Boom” with its adaptation by the Canadian group The Crew Cuts). Just give credit where credit is due.
Which this film does, and then some. With an almost exhausting collection of voices that take us through the journey from post-World War II gospel groups to blues and beyond, we travel through history to encounter doo-wop as it first began to develop in the late 1940s. First it was “street music,” made by folks without access to instruments, before coalescing into more organized songs and then, soon enough, hits. Survivors and descendants of this distant era are our guides, from La La Brooks (The Crystals), Barbara Jean English (The Clickettes), Fred Parris (The Five Satins), Vito Picone (The Elegants), Lois Powell (The Chantels), and Charlie Thomas (The Drifters), to Lance Bass (NSYNC), Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron (En Vogue), and Claude McKnight (Take 6), and many, many more, including The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine and Brian Wilson. Indeed, if this movie has a weakness, it’s that it can overwhelm with detail and nostalgic reminiscence, the one subsumed by the other in a sometimes soggy mess. Still, at other times the various trips down memory lane come together in a deeply moving narrative.
And what is so special about doo-wop, exactly? Just listen, as Brent Wilson (Scouting Camp: Next Olympic Hopeful) allows the music full reign over his soundtrack, the gorgeous vocals reminding us of its lilting delights. Plus, as Wilson and his sources make clear, it’s a style of music that has led to many others. Finally, though there are over 300 inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, only 12 of them are from harmony groups. It’s about time, then, to showcase this kind of singing. Despite its occasional structural flaws, then, Streetlight Hamonies offers many powerful moments, not the least of which is the final scene when Brooks, Picone and Thomas join the modern-day a capella group Straight No Chaser to record one of The Drifters’ classic hits “Stand By Me.” Yeah, the new guys sound good, but the veterans have definitely still got it. Hello, hello again, sh-boom and hopin’ we’ll meet again …