Streetlight Harmonies (Wilson, 2020)

There are things that you know — in your head, intellectually — that still hit you hard when you are confronted with them in reality rather than merely as abstractions.

That the history of American pop and rock music is mostly a history of White appropriation of Black culture is not an argument I’ve never heard before. That the exploitation of the artist is the backbone of the music industry is point made in Supermensch, for example. And it doesn’t take a genius to know that whatever inequalities exist in any industry are most likely compounded by race rather than ameliorated by it.

Still there’s a difference between knowing that and watching Streetlight Harmonies, a delightful documentary about “doo-wop” that features musician after musician being introduced to a shrugging, “Never heard of him/her…” followed by a clip of some song, leading me to say, “Oh! That’s who that is!”

The race angle isn’t so much the documentary’s thesis — I’m not sure it has one beyond “ain’t music great?” It’s just the most interesting thought that occurred to me while I was nodding my head and answering, “Yep, it sure is.”

The film opens by telling us that there have been only twelve vocal harmony groups inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It goes on to introduce us to some of them as well as their chroniclers, and the other artists they’ve influenced. Fold in a healthy dose of performance footage and some touching anecdotes, and the film is a very pleasant way to spend eighty-three minutes, even if it never quite organizes itself around any central thesis.

At one point a participant says that doo-wop has done as much for the cause of integration and many civil rights leaders. That may sound like a stretch, but clips of integrated young people dancing together while stern politicians pearl clutch and spout racist epithets are hard to ignore. Those of us who didn’t live through the fifties and sixties (I was three years’-old when the latter came to a close) sometimes need to be reminded that the exploitation and mistreatment of these musicians is as much a part of our national legacy as the music they’ve given us.

The first album I ever owned was Endless Summer by the Beach Boys. It was gifted to my by a cousin. (Thanks, Matt, wherever you are.) I can’t honestly say that after watching the documentary I can draw a straight line explaining how we got from Frankie Lymon to Brian Wilson, but at least now I know who the former — and not just the latter — is.

We all have to start somewhere.

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