Morgan Neville initially interviewed about 50 backup singers for his new documentary on the subject, Twenty Feet From Stardom, but the one who first convinced him he was onto something was Darlene Love. Love did backup work for the Beach Boys, Elvis and Sonny and Cher, among others, and also sang lead vocals on the song “He's a Rebel” — but producer Phil Spector wanted the song credited to the Crystals, who were being groomed as stars. “After our interview I turned to our producer and said, 'I have a film now,'” Neville recalls.
Neville initially got the idea from music industry vet Gil Friesen, an exec at A&M Records who passed away this past December. “Nobody knew about backup singers,” says Neville, in an interview just after the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “No books, websites — I couldn't find anything.”
Tracking down information is what Neville's done since he was a teenager — he was an L.A. Weekly intern during his junior year of college, in the late '80s. After graduation he got a job at The Nation.
It wasn't until he was working on his first film, 1995's Shotgun Freeway: Drives Through Lost L.A. — “a mondo history of L.A.,” he calls it — that he realized he wanted to be a documentarian.
His day job at that point was producing the late Huell Howser's TV show. “By day I was doing Huell's utopian version of California, and by night I was doing my dystopian version,” he says.
In the intervening years, he's become one of the foremost chroniclers of L.A. culture, directing documentaries such as The Cool School, about L.A.'s famed Ferus Gallery and its band of artists that included Ed Ruscha, Frank Gehry, Robert Irwin and Dennis Hopper. His 2011 film Troubadours was about Carole King, James Taylor and other singer-songwriters centered around the West Hollywood club the Troubadour.
Twenty Feet From Stardom has a similar mix of music and L.A. cultural history. “We could have talked about Nashville or reggae or girl groups or Hollywood session singers, but to me the most interesting story is these female singers coming out of churches in South Central and into the studios in Hollywood, and what the repercussions of that were over 50 years,” he says. Singing “is really a spiritual calling as well as an artistic calling” for these performers.
In addition to Love, who began singing in the choir at the St. Paul Baptist Church in South L.A., the film spotlights Merry Clayton, who was summoned in the middle of the night and showed up with her hair in curlers to perform the famous wailing vocals backing Mick Jagger in “Gimme Shelter.” It also features the younger Judith Hill, who was booked as a backup for Michael Jackson's “This is It” concert; after he passed away she found herself performing lead vocals at his memorial service. She is now attempting a solo career, and appeared as contestant on The Voice earlier this year. (Neville also snagged interviews with a few main acts, including Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder.)
What's especially fascinating and moving about the film is its deep consideration of how important fame really is in the entertainment business. One might expect backup singers to feel resentful of stars — it's probably even odds that they're better singers, as god knows the record business is hardly a meritocracy. And some backup singers have felt angry at various times. But many seem proud to have had a small part in history — or even just to have had a job singing at that level, itself a one-in-a million shot.
This resignation also means Neville's subjects weren't always happy to chat. “A lot of backup singers are really shy and don't want their life documented,” he says. “They're not pining to be celebrity. They've had a front-row look at celebrity for along time and most people find out it's not for them.”
At Sundance, Twenty Feet From Stardom sold to Radius-TWC, a boutique branch of the Weinstein Company. “We premiered Thursday night and I stayed up all night Thursday night with the classic Sundance experience,” traveling from one distributor's condo to another in the snow, Neville explains. “You go to meetings at 3:30 in the morning and there are ten people there and there's pizza and beer. And you go to the next meeting at 4:30 and there are ten people there. It's the weirdest experience but very memorable.”
To get distribution he relied on film rep Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment, who also helped sell acclaimed documentaries The Queen of Versailles and Searching for Sugar Man. “I defer to his genius,” Neville says. “What he said, which seems so surprising, is, don't show it to anybody [beforehand]. If people are interested they see it and they decide on the spot if they're going got go for it.”
Harvey Weinstein himself was not there — he attended President Obama's inauguration a few days later — “but he was definitely in the loop on things,” Neville says. “I wasn't privy to all their conversations but simultaneous with our premiere we sent him a link to the film so he could see it.”
The festival was also quite an experience for the subjects. When Twenty Feet From Stardom was selected as an opening night film, Neville recalls, “I know what that meant but they didn't. Convincing them to fly to Utah to some place called Sundance and having them show up and see 1,000 people there — I think it hit them that this is a real thing.” They performed after the screenings and fielded tearful questions from audience members who opened up about their own long-ago dreams of becoming a singer.
People ask Neville if backup singers are competitive with each other, but he found them to be pretty supportive — which is kind of touching, but in some ways frustrating. “The hardest thing for me was these ladies' religious dispositions made them incredibly at peace with what they've gone through,” Neville says. “I can't tell you how many times I said, 'You really got screwed over in that situation' and they'd say, 'Well, it was God's plan.' You kind of want to scream.”