Doo-wop is fun, OK? It just is. And someplace within its DNA resides the building blocks for pretty much all the music that came afterwards, from R&B to rock to hip-hop and beyond.
But if you ask the people who were there—the Little Anthonies, the Jon Baumans, the Barbara Jean Englishes—it was always just R&B, it was always more about vocal harmonies (many of the greats were too poor to buy instruments), it was always more about the rhythm and expression than any tidy title. These people don't much care for the term "doo-wop," in fact, nor do they care for how cast aside, forgotten and ultimately unpaid they wound up being after the genre faded into oldies territory.
In Streetlight Harmonies, from director Brent Wilson, we hear tell of an era when practically everyone with a half-decent voice took to the corners, bathed in the glow of the streetlight, and sang. Like all things, once industry made sense of it, it was commodified and packaged, its creators were chewed up and spat out; Frankie Lymon, for example, died young despite his indelible mark with The Teenagers. Most others were simply forgotten.
And they're none too happy about it. Through interviews with singers, DJs, later singers, icons and pop culture phenoms, we fully get the gist that doo-wop was vitally important to music history, but Wilson and company give us a clearer idea that its purveyors are still pissed—the living ones, anyway.
There's only so many times you can hear from someone about how they made no money or how the people who came after would never have amounted to anything had Ben E. King never put pen to paper and voice to microphone. Wilson nearly winds up portraying his subjects like whiners, even if it's well warranted, which it is, and while their pain is more than understandable, a few more celebratory moments might have come in handy.
If the moral thus becomes something about how the record industry is evil, well, we already knew that. If it becomes about how white people tend to ruin or steal everything, well, we knew that, too. Of course it's unfair, of course businessmen took advantage, of course these people deserve more recognition. But if the history of doo-wop is writ solely as a cadre of the elderly repeatedly saying how much things sucked…well, then it's little wonder we've since moved on.
Music, of course, ebbs and flows, and people, of course, deserve to be paid for their labors. Streetlight Harmonies does rekindle a love for countless songs we all know (and believe me—you probably know all these songs), but when it comes to providing any new or revelatory information, or even giving us a reason to love those who wrote songs inscribed forever in our collective consciousness, that stuff is unfortunately in short supply.
+Great tunes, of course; cool musicians
-Repetetive; bland; little new information
Directed by Wilson
Amazon, NR, 83 min.