By now, director Morgan Neville is used to his documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, provoking strong reactions.
“I had one screening where a guy came out and said, ‘Are you guys putting out a soundtrack? If I can’t find this music, I’m going to kill myself,’” Neville says from his Los Angeles office, chuckling at the memory. “I just feel like you come out of the film and want to hear music.”
The new film, which opens Friday at the Angelika Theaters in Dallas and Plano, highlights a heretofore little-seen and greatly under appreciated aspect of the music business: the backup singer.
Taking its cue from a lyric in Lou Reed’s 1972 song Walk on the Wild Side (“And the colored girls go/Doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do doo”), 20 Feet From Stardom focuses on women like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, paying tribute to these indispensable artists, even as it chronicles the challenges backup singers face, whether it’s finding work or attempting to launch a solo career.
This brisk, vivid documentary, which touches upon racial and sexual politics, as well as the deep influence of gospel in soul and R&B music, is also an elegiac lament for pop, rock and R&B music’s heyday, when singers could work multiple sessions in a day, performing live in a studio with a band, everyone operating at the top of their respective game.
“Music used to be a snapshot of people making music together,” the 45-year-old Neville says. “Some of my favorite songs are about their imperfections, [like] the out-of-tune organ on [Percy Sledge’s] When a Man Loves a Woman. … To do recording like that, you’ve got to be great to do that, because if one person screws up, you’ve got to go back and do it from scratch. But when you’ve got singers that good and players that good and [you] let them do that, it’s just magical.”
Today versus yesterday
But Neville, whose directorial credits include documentaries on Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Iggy Pop and Brian Wilson, wasn’t interested in making a 90-minute indictment of modern music.
“That [era] was certainly a heyday of music,” he says. “I didn’t want this film to be a referendum on why music today isn’t good … the whole industry changed, for one thing. I have a lot more stuff of people talking about being a backup singer on a Britney Spears tour and having to lip-synch to your own voice every night and how soul-sucking it is … At a certain point, it just felt like piling on.”
Instead, Neville provides a window into a world where talent trumps all, and the stories behind some of pop, rock and R&B’s most indelible songs — Merry Clayton was summoned to a recording session with the Rolling Stones at two in the morning, delivering her iconic performance on Gimme Shelter (“Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away”) in her pajamas — are riveting.
“I have to give credit to my producer Gil Friesen, because it was his idea,” Neville says. “He was the president of A&M Records for many years [and] he came up with the idea that something was interesting about backup singers. When he started poking around, he realized no one had ever done anything about backup singers. … It’s a black hole in everyone’s musical knowledge. ”
Neville spent 20 months collecting interviews (“We did 50 oral histories of backup singers to figure out the themes and stories and ideas of that world,” he says) and piecing together the film, which, in addition to the backup singers, includes interviews with those being backed up: Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger and Sheryl Crow offer their thoughts.
“In almost every case, people really played ball with us, and saw the virtue of the project,” Neville says. “We weren’t doing this to get rich — we were doing this to celebrate backup singers.”
Too much for one movie
According to Neville, the toughest aspect of making 20 Feet From Stardom wasn’t securing archival footage or clearing the rights to use various songs — Stardom does indeed boast a killer soundtrack — but streamlining the narrative and making sure he didn’t lose focus of the four women at its center.
“The real challenge for me was cutting stuff out,” he says. “I kept feeling like the film should come with footnotes. There’s so much other information about these people … that I don’t tell you about. [But] I wanted it to be a film, not a book. … I felt like I made exactly the film I wanted to make at the end of the day.”
Now that audiences are having a chance to see that finished product (he does allow that there’s quite a bit of footage on the cutting-room floor, which may turn up on an eventual DVD release of the film), Neville isn’t surprised 20 Feet From Stardom is striking a chord.
“The thing I’ve seen audiences take away from the film, which is incredibly gratifying, is that they see themselves in it,” Neville says. “I wasn’t expecting that, but the fact that these are people who work together closely, without a lot of ego to make an artist or a song shine. They don’t get a lot of attention or a lot of credit, and that’s what most of us are. Most of us are not stars. … I feel like that’s something to be celebrated.”