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Review: Doo-wop doc ‘Streetlight Harmonies’ sings an important tale of R&B, rock and civil rights

Little Anthony (Gourdine) in the documentary ‘Streetlight Harmonies’
Little Anthony (Gourdine) in the documentary “Streetlight Harmonies.”
(Gravitas Ventures)

Like a fan excitedly showing off their record collection, the documentary “Streetlight Harmonies” flips through its history of doo-wop telling a tale both tuneful and essential in the development of rhythm & blues, rock and roll and civil rights.

From the Ink Spots, the Five Satins and Frankie Lymon through a heyday marked by Little Anthony and the Imperials, Dion and the Belmonts, the Shirelles and countless others, the story told here is one of black East Coast teenagers of the 1950s gathering under streetlamps, in hallways and subways. They made sweetly melodic, vocally inventive paeans to innocent love that would eventually cut across racial lines in popularity and influence but not always come back to these gifted artists when the money started rolling in to the labels that signed them.

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The anecdotes about making the music from these unsung pop veterans come with plenty of smiles, but the details of the turbulent times around them — especially when they toured the South — are sober reminders of why their music was so emotionally transportive.

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Director Brent Wilson’s breathless celebration is messy — more of an antsy supercut than a deep listen — but for the 45 rpm faithful and newer generations curious about the origins of boy bands, girl groups and rap crews, the parade of interviewed legends (La La Brooks, Little Anthony, Jeff Barry) and song snippets just might convince you to turn at least one of your shelter-in nights into an a cappella-thon.

'Streetlight Harmonies'
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing: Available on VOD


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