Bessie Smith to Lady Gaga is a wide swath in modern music, and "Women Who Rock" includes them and many in between Friday, Nov. 18, on PBS (check local listings).
"Rock and roll is a very wide river," says filmmaker Carol Stein. She and Susan Wittenberg "wanted people who represented various eras," Stein says.
"We were trying to figure it out by categories," Wittenberg says. "It's a big tent."
Though there's a chasm between Mahalia Jackson and Madonna, and both are featured in the film, the common denominator is music with attitude.
The documentary opens with James Brown singing, "This is a man's world." It soon cuts to Christina Aguilera belting the same song, and the irony is lost on no one.
Women are the top grossers in music in the 21st century, the documentary notes. But women's rock roots go back to the very beginnings of the genre.
The catalyst for the film was an exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which helped the filmmakers decide who should be in the documentary. Darlene Love was finally inducted in 2011, and though her legions of fans had been asking about her inclusion for years, Love was sanguine.
She, of the voice that never stops and who has been hitting the charts since 1961, is completely at peace with how long it took for her to be recognized in the museum.
"It bothered me at first, and then I didn't think about it anymore," she says. "You know what? I will be in there, in time."
Stunning in a form-fitting satin dress -- she kickboxes five days a week -- Love talks with no regrets. Love sang backup for Elvis, Sinatra, Sam Cooke and many others. She's been on Broadway and sees herself as a rock singer.
Love is probably best known for singing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on "The Late Show With David Letterman," which she's done annually since 1986 and always brings the house down.
Love has that effect on people.
She started singing in a girl group, the Blossoms, when she was 18. Years of doing backup for everyone from Tom Jones to Dionne Warwick followed.
While deciding whether she could go solo, she had a day job -- cleaning houses. She was scrubbing a toilet in a woman's house when her hit "Christmas" came on the radio. She knew then that she had to pursue a solo career.
She was 40 and dating Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, and he nudged her to launch her solo career.
"He said, 'Are you going to sing backup your whole life or go solo?' So he put together a band for me," Love says.
She did a show at The Roxy. She recalls singing "Hungry Heart," and some skinny guy in the back of the room was whooping it up. She asked someone, "Who was that in the back cutting up so bad?" Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt told her.
They were early boosters.
"We are still really good friends," Love says.
And she credits her friends, including Springsteen, Elton John and Phil Spector, for helping her career.
"It is tougher for women," she says. "It was a little easier for me."
Many of the female rockers in the documentary don't seem to care how hard it was. They were going to do it, and it's that attitude that fuels their music.
"Women who are adventurous, who step out of the norm, who don't take no for an answer" is how filmmaker Stein describes them.
Many of the clips are extremely familiar, but the surprises come in the beginning for those who don't know Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She looked like an unassuming church lady until she strapped on that electric guitar and became a rocker of pure audacity.
Relying, perhaps too heavily, on music journalists for commentary and taking a chronological approach, the documentary features popular clips, snippets of music videos and a few fresher interviews.
"Nancy Wilson played a ballad especially for us," Wittenberg says. "If we spent time with the artists, they are very giving and very sweet."
Ultimately the filmmakers want to convey "that rock and roll is thought of as a male art form," Stein says. "From the start, women have made a profound contribution to the art form. This was a film honoring that these women were incredible artists. This is basically a tribute."
"To me it is a joyous celebration," Wittenberg says.
"And a thank you to those who have given us so much joy," Stein adds.
Even if rock remains dominated by the guys, Love says she knows the truth.
"We are as powerful as men are in rock because men want to see us," Love says. "The men know we are there; they are just trying to act like we are not there."
How women such as Darlene Love rocked our world
Darlene Love is featured on "Women Who Rock" Friday on PBS (check local listings).
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