Director Morgan Neville introduced his film, mentioning that he'd been married in New Orleans, a city he loved and was happy to return to, and also introduced Merry Clayton and her friend, LIFF Director of Music Programming and venerable producer Alan Abrahams.
Earlier that day, over a plate of charcuterie and drinks at the excellent Cochon Butcher, Neville had told me that he had wanted to elope, but when his fiance balked at that idea, he said he then requested a destination wedding -- "in Memphis, Havana, or New Orleans." His first film was 1995's "Shotgun Freeway: Drives through Lost L.A.," a particular favorite of mine, and shown by longtime supporter Birnie at LACMA -- hence LIFF's fortunate snaring of "Twenty Feet from Stardom."
Though Neville's impressive filmography includes movies on subjects including John Steinbeck and Los Angeles' modern art scene, he's most known for his many music films, including ones on the Brill Building, Leiber & Stoller, and Burt Bacharach, many produced through his Los Angeles-based company Tremolo Productions.
"Twenty Feet from Stardom" features Clayton, Darlene Love, Julia Hill, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and Claudia Linnear, all of whom aspired to solo careers and released albums, but somehow never achieved the kind of stardom of the singers they sang backup to, including Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, who also appear, singing the praises (pun intended) of their lesser-known but equally gifted colleagues. It's moving both in its story-telling as well as the astonishing performances, shown in both vintage footage and scenes shot especially for the film.
Afterwards Merry Clayton (famed for her collaboration with Mick Jagger on the iconic "Gimme Shelter") was presented with a framed New Orleans Certificate of Recognition on behalf of Mayor Mitch Landrieu. She gave thanks to the late Gil Friesen, famed music executive who produced "Twenty Feet from Stardom" and died suddenly at the age of 75 a month before its premiere. She then sang "a song written and given to me by Leon Russell," "A Song for You," to a recorded backing track, and followed that with a moving a cappella performance of "You Are So Beautiful" by Joe Cocker, for which she brought her sister onstage to sing alongside her, dedicated to Alan Abrahams.
I was only sorry that I missed introducing Clayton to documentary film producer Jeff Kaufman, in Louisiana to present his jazz documentary "The Savoy King" at LIFF, because she co-starred with Kaufman's cousin by marriage, Tyne Daly, for a year on "Cagney and Lacey," and Daly provided one of the voices for "The Savoy King."
A desperate attempt to find a restaurant open late resulted in Neville leading Birnie, Kaufman and his filmmaker son Daniel, and me to a raffish place called Port of Call, which specializes in rather wonderful huge greasy hamburgers (served with baked potatoes instead of fries) and fruity tiki-type cocktails. In the small world department, when Neville said he collected Los Angeles ephemera, I mentioned a Los Angeles bookstore I'd worked in, the late-lamented Other Times on Pico, it turned out that I'd sold many books to Morgan's father, well-known Santa Barbara rare-book dealer Maurice Neville.
I hitched a ride to Baton Rouge alongside Birnie and Ireland, who drove us with aplomb through a striking display of thunder and lightning in pelting rain, to a witty iPod soundtrack. Tomorrow the choices would become more difficult. But tonight had been just about perfect.