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After Years in Shadow, Oscar Winner '20 Feet From Stardom' Lets Backup Singers Take Center Stage (UPDATED)

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood November 26, 2013 at 4:01PM

It was a big task for a little documentary to go up against the likes of "Man of Steel," "Monsters University" and "World War Z." In a way, though, it's a fitting role for Morgan Neville's film. Those big popcorn flicks can hold up a mirror to our lives, but "20 Feet from Stardom" goes deeper. By asking questions about sex, race and the American dream, it challenges us to look critically at our collective, national soul. In doing so, it's one of the most important films of the year.
"20 Feet From Stardom"
Radius-TWC "20 Feet From Stardom"

"20 Feet from Stardom" may be "the most prayed-over documentary in history," says filmmaker Morgan Neville, anxiously eyeing the clouds gathering over Manhattan. He had flown in to New York that Saturday afternoon for the New York premiere of his music documentary. But the planned venue was outside, on the rooftop of New Design High School on the Lower East Side -- and open to the elements.

But Neville had a secret weapon against the threatening weather from an unlikely place: the very women whose stories form the backbone of his moving documentary. "The whole time I was making the film," Neville said over the phone, "they would call me and say, 'Morgan, we're praying for you. We're praying for this film--you're all prayed up.'"

Sure enough, the clouds scudded away as the sun set, and a beautiful early summer night emerged as the movie screen sprang to life. Neville says: "This project has just been blessed."

An unusual summer movie

The Weinstein Company's RADiUS wanted to give the well-reviewed Sundance opener "20 Feet from Stardom" the summer to find its audience, opening the film limited in June in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a larger release in those two cities and a wider break in July, with DVD and VOD to follow in the fall. As Neville sees it, "20 Feet from Stardom" is a word-of-mouth film, something that can function as a "tonic"--his word--to run-of-the-mill studio fare. It worked: "Stardom" is the highest-grossing doc of the year to date, with $4.7 million in the till, and has won numerous festival awards and a coveted best documentarynomination from the Independent Spirit Awards.

It was a big task for a little documentary to go up against the likes of "Man of Steel," "Monsters University" and "World War Z."  In a way, though, it's a fitting role for Neville's film.  Those big popcorn flicks can hold up a mirror to our lives, but "Stardom" goes deeper.  By asking questions about sex, race and the American dream, it challenges us to look critically at our collective, national soul. In doing so, it's one of the most important films of the year.

Heroes: singing, yet unsung

The idea was Gil Friesen's. A former music and film exec, Friesen produced "The Breakfast Club" and chaired A&M Records from 1977 to 1990--as Neville puts it, "He was the ampersand in A&M."  Friesen had been out of the music industry for some time, but after watching a Leonard Cohen concert one evening, it clicked: he could tell a story about backup singers, the incredible musicians who often spend their entire lives heard but not seen.

"We didn't know what the film was going to be in the beginning," Neville told me. He and Friesen interviewed 50 backup singers from many different backgrounds, parsing through the material for a through-line that would bring it together and make a statement. In a way, Neville says, he was flying blind, doing his own original reporting.  There were no books, no websites, no sources to turn to--there were only singers, their voices and their stories.  "It was just uncharted territory," Neville said.

But as they went through the material, Neville says, a theme began to emerge, one that focused on four singers, three of them veterans who changed the sound of American music, and one of them an up-and-comer with an uncertain future. As with many documentarians, the real challenge for Neville wasn't creating content, it was curating it.  "Hands down," he told me, "the most difficult thing about making this film was cutting stuff out."

True to his own film, Neville says the real hero of "20 Feet of Stardom" is Friesen, who spearheaded the monumental task of procuring the rights to iconic American songs and securing big-name musicians for interviews. Friesen passed away just a few days before Sundance, where the film screened publicly for the first time on opening night and became the fest's first purchase. "Gil was the ultimate backup singer," Neville told me when we spoke.  "He just thought this would be a fun, interesting story."

Pastors' daughters with soul

Narrowing down the focus of the film to three women was essential, the director says, to determining what he wanted the film to say. He finally picked Phil Spector discard Darlene Love, star of his iconic Christmas album, who wound up cleaning houses before returning to singing; Merry Clayton, who when called in the middle of the night to sing backup on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" nailed it; and Sting regular Lisa Fischer, whom Neville referred to playfully as 'the ladies' throughout our interview.

"It comes back to Lou Reed," he told me, referencing the song "Walk on the Wild Side," featured during the film's opening credits, in which Reed sings the first half of the refrain ("And the colored girls go, doo do doo do doo") and a trio of backup singers takes over. "That helped guide me as I was trying to define the kind of backup singing that I was talking about. It's not Nashville, it's not girl groups, it's not 50s white singers. It's these black voices for hire that came into the studios and created that dynamic.  It's the call and response, heaven and hell--all that stuff that these women talk about."

The singers at the center of "20 Feet from Stardom" have several things in common: they're all black women and nearly all of their fathers were ministers. That church background gave them a unique perspective on music, one that emphasized community, celebration and, in its most basic sense, soul.

A deep and almost instinctual need to sing is palpably evident in Neville's interviews with Love, Clayton and Fischer. But what is most evident in "20 Feet from Stardom" is that these women were never in it for fame or fortune. In fact, the film offers a provocative examination of how Americans define success as a society. At one point, Neville recalls, Friesen turned to him and said, "You're making a socialist film." But Neville is fine with that. "How often do we make films just celebrating people that do a good job, work altruistically and are in it just for the sake of the love and not the business?"

This article is related to: Morgan Neville, Documentary, The Weinstein Co., Sundance Film Festival, Musical, Documentaries, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Awards, Documentary, Documentaries, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.