News Column

Documentary on backup singers stirs new interest and opportunities for its stars

July 19, 2013

YellowBrix

July 19--When director Morgan Neville began making "20 Feet from Stardom" -- his critically acclaimed documentary on the backup singers whose voices helped define some of pop and rock's greatest records -- he couldn't have anticipated that the film would turn into a real-life redemption story.

"You make a movie about people having bad luck and missed opportunities, only to have that film create new luck and new opportunities -- well, that's crazy," says Neville. "I never imagined that could actually happen, and it has. The stars have aligned on this project in a way that they rarely ever do."

Familiar to Memphians for his work as co-director of the definitive Stax Records documentary "Respect Yourself", Neville's latest effort, a fascinating, loving look at the art and lives of several generations of backup singers, opens Friday at the Ridgeway Four. The documentary -- which became a sensation at January's Sundance Film Festival, was picked up by the

Weinstein Company's Radius-TWC, and is expected to generate Oscar buzz -- looks at the lives of a group of female African-American singers whose voices are familiar to millions, even if their names are not.

The idea for "20 Feet from Stardom" originally sprung from the mind of its producer, former A&M Records head Gil Friesen. "Gil was an old-school record man," Neville says. "He just loved backup singers and was really interested in them but had no idea if there was a movie there."

Introduced by mutual friends, Friesen and Neville met in 2010 and started discussing plans for a possible documentary. They began work the following year by conducting some 50 oral history interviews with background singers from across the country. It didn't take long to realize there was a film there that needed to be made. "A number of things struck me right way," says Neville. "First, that this was a real community of artists. And there was so much personality, incredible talent and stories there. We knew there was this interesting world we could delve into."

For Neville, the greater challenge was trying to narrow the focus of the film. "There were so many different directions could've gone in. If you say 'backup singing,' it's a huge subject. There's no definition on any of this. Are you talking about the singers at Motown? Or are you talking about girl groups, male singers, the people who worked in Nashville, the singers at places like Hi Records in Memphis, James Brown's backup singers, reggae singers? There were all these worlds that could've been explored."

Ultimately, Neville decided to build a narrative around "the classic idea of African-American women, the voices that came into the studio for the first time and brought with them a new sound and a new soul to pop music."

"Also, I wanted voices that were really voices-for-hire -- people that were doing sessions who were working without a net. They might go into the studio on a given day and didn't know if they were going to be singing with Buck Owens or Sam Cooke or singing with Joe Cocker. They had to be able to do it all."

Focusing on multiple generations of African-American female singers -- from 1960s veterans like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton to latter-day talents like Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill -- "20 Feet" shows the triumphs, hardships and disappointments of a life spent largely in the shadows of music industry. "In a way," says Neville, "their stories all echo each other's stories; they fit together, even though they made different choices and had different fates."

Neville, who's worked on major documentaries about name acts like the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, says the process of exploring the lives of backing singers mostly unknown to the general public was a liberating experience. "Creatively, it's really freeing because you're not wrestling with the history and perceptions surrounding a big artist; you're starting from scratch," he says. "But the truth is, films like this don't get made very often, because they cost a lot money. It's hard to get clearances (for music rights), and nobody has a vested interest in the story getting told."

Fortunately, Neville and Friesen were able to secure both the needed funds and the star power, as they landed interviews with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Sting, who speak eloquently about the role and importance of the women in the film.

Unfortunately, Friesen was diagnosed with cancer during the last months of production and died in December 2012, just before the documentary's debut at Sundance. "He had a great black humor. He said, 'Everybody with cancer should have a documentary they're working on to keep them going,'" recalls Neville. "We'd be meeting in his hospital room and talking every day. He was able to see the picture once it was locked, and was so happy it'd come to fruition."

For the singers, the subjects of the film, there was a sense of uncertainty about the project until the night of the premiere. "When we were making it, they didn't really know if anybody was going to ever see this thing or if it was going to end up on YouTube," says Neville. "It wasn't until Sundance that many of them saw it for the first time. We had a packed theater with 1,200 people who gave them a standing ovation at the end. At that point, it finally felt real to them. It was an incredible night."

Since the buzz around the film began building in January, there's been a surge in interest in the women of "20 Feet." "It's totally changed their lives in a good way," says Neville, who also produced an accompanying soundtrack album for Columbia Records. "All these ladies, everybody in the film, is signing with managers and booking agents, and putting out records and compilations; all that stuff is going on. That's been the unexpected bonus in all this."

Neville adds that like other successful music documentaries that fueled major tours -- "The Buena Vista Social Club", "Searching for Sugarman," "Standing in the Shadows" -- there's discussion of a "20 Feet" live package that could hit the road later this year and expose even more people to this talented group of women.

"A lot of these women say, 'Thirty years ago, it didn't happen for me then, but that was all part of God's plan. There's nothing wrong with it happening for me now.' "

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(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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