Note worthy: Morgan Neville's 'Twenty Feet from Stardom' tunes in to music's unsung heroes, backup singers


Backup singers. We may not know their names, but we've all heard their work, on songs by The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder. But the term sounds condescending, cold, dismissive. Twenty Feet from Stardom, a documentary directed by Morgan Neville, helps set the record straight about the crucial role these singers play in popular culture. Radius–TWC is releasing the film on June 14.

As Neville recalls, the "seed" of the project came from Gil Friesen, a producer who helped build A&M into the largest independent record label in the world. "He was the ampersand in A&M," Neville says, talking from his office in Los Angeles. "The coolest cat, always in an amazing suit with wraparound sunglasses. He had a hunch about background singers, he kind of talked himself into doing a documentary, and asked me to help. He said, 'I've got a title,' which Jimmy Buffet actually gave him. In the back of my mind I'm thinking this is like old Roger Corman stuff, make the poster first and then you've got to come up with a film."

Neville, who has produced and directed documentaries on artists ranging from Pearl Jam to Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters and Hank Williams, knew what he didn't want the film to be. "Peter Guralnick, an old friend of mine, said, 'The least interesting things in writing about music are sex, drugs, and getting screwed over by your record label. Because everybody has those stories.'"

Instead, the director went on what he called a "fishing" expedition, shooting material by himself to see where it would lead. "This wasn't like making a documentary about Henry Kissinger," he explains. "There weren't twenty books you could reference, no websites, it was even hard to find magazine articles about backup singing. The only way to find out anything was to talk to the singers themselves. So we did fifty oral histories of singers on camera just to figure out the themes, the characters, the ideas we wanted to cover."

Neville then wrote a treatment that came close to the structure of the final film. "If you actually look at all the scenes on a wall, as I did for a year while we were editing," he continues, "you see how these people found their way into the business, have great success as backup singers and then start to branch out on their own, and then this sort of crash when they don't find that success."

Some figures stand out in the film, in particular Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer. Love, perhaps best known today for her annual performance of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on "The Late Show with David Letterman," has a tragic, confounding history. Under contract to Phil Spector, she sang lead vocals on some of the biggest hits of the early 1960s, singles that were released under other names. "Darlene actually had hits," Neville points out, "she just never got the credit she deserved. Phil basically put Darlene in a cage."

Merry Clayton remembers singing on "Gimme Shelter" for The Rolling Stones while dressed in her pajamas. Neville isolates her chilling "Rape, murder/It's just a shot away" track in the film, letting viewers hear just how startling a performer she is. Clayton was groomed for stardom by no less than Lou Adler, who was producing Carole King's mega-platinum Tapestry album at the time. Despite her talent, Clayton never found an audience.

"What's the difference between a lead singer and a backup singer?" Neville jokes. "A hit. Some people are pure stars, they have more star power than talent. They are going to be famous no matter what. And then there are people with more talent than star power, who either because of their looks or psychology or something like luck can just wash out."

Lisa Fischer, who tours with The Rolling Stones and who has performed with Sting and Chris Botti, started out singing backup with Luther Vandross. Her first solo album won a Grammy, but she never completed a second.

"There's a large area of culture that's a little bit out of your control," Neville reasons. "At one point in the film, I had a montage of backup singers telling me why their records weren't hits. 'My first single got banned in England because it had a word that was misconstrued.' 'The record-pressing plant burned down the week my record came out.' 'My A&R guy got busted for coke the month my record came out.' On and on and on. I finally cut it out because I didn't want to give the impression that, 'Gee, isn't it sad that all these singers just want to be famous?' because a lot of them don't."

Neville cites The Waters Family, who have recorded backup for 50 years, even supplying voices for Avatar. "They told me, 'We've got nice houses, we've got kids, we've got a good career.' And I think it can be a good life if you're psychologically set up for it."

The Waters figure in a wonderful, spur-of-the-moment rendition of the Oscar-winning "Up Where We Belong," which they sing around a kitchen table. Neville prepared for the scene with two cameras, individual microphones and a boom mike. "I didn't want to be throwing them questions off-camera," Neville recalls. "I wrote down questions, not even questions but words, on index cards and set them on the table. I said, 'You guys talk, and when you run out of something to say, flip over a card.' And one card had, 'Sing something.' It's amazing that they could perform so spontaneously."

The film also represents the newer generation by including Judith Hill, who sang with Michael Jackson on his final, ill-fated “This Is It” project and is a contestant on the current season of NBC’s singing competition show “The Voice.”

Neville credits producer Caitrin Rogers and archive producer Jessica Berman-Bogdan with Global ImageWorks for help in unearthing performance clips. The quality of the footage varies widely, a consequence of changing video standards. "I wish that Merry Clayton performance on 'Soul,' where she's singing 'Southern Man,' were higher quality. But it only exists on 3/4-inch tape. The original two-inch tape is gone. Sometimes I had alternate choices, alternate songs with better visual quality, but for me, the subject trumps the format."

One clip Neville couldn't use was "With A Little Help from My Friends," sung by Joe Cocker in the concert film Mad Dogs and Englishmen. "It really showed off backup singers," he says. "The message of the song was great for backup singing, and it had really great coverage of backup singers. But we couldn't clear it. It was one of the only things we couldn't clear."

But not getting the rights to the Beatles song led Neville to another Mad Dogs and Englishmen cut: "Space Captain," a tremendous showcase for one-time George Harrison backup Claudia Lennear.

The director said getting access to the performers was relatively straightforward. "Gil opened a lot of doors. He knew Merry back in the day at A&M. He was good friends with Richard Donner, who directed Darlene in the Lethal Weapon series. Even Gil said, 'This took so many more favors than I imagined.' But it was fun for him, he was great at it. He'd never ask for a favor over the phone, he'd say, 'Let me take you to lunch,' because he knew it was hard for people to say no to him over a meal."

The A&M connection helped Neville obtain footage from The Concert for Bangladesh, a documentary about a Madison Square Garden benefit organized by George Harrison. Harrison's wife Olivia was once a secretary at A&M. "That's where George met her," Neville explains. "In part because of Gil, Olivia was just great to work with."

Friesen died of leukemia this past December. Apart from tweaks, the film was more or less complete by the previous September. "Nobody thought he was going to die," Neville recalls. "We would joke about turning his hospital room into an office.

"The best thing about him as a producer, and in a way this was what they did at A&M too, there was never an issue of cutting corners or compromising. He questioned a lot of things. I had to explain my choices. But he felt, if you're not going to do it to the fullest of your ability, make it as great as you can, then don't bother."

Neville grew close to many of the singers in Twenty Feet from Stardom, although he readily admits that the film is far from exhaustive. "I felt like I had to focus on this specific group of characters whose stories dovetail with each other. I've never been tempted to do a sequel to any documentary except this one, because there are so many more stories to tell."

And as a director, especially a director of documentaries, Neville finds a kinship of sorts with backup singers. "I knew this project was speaking to me personally, but I'm realizing now how it resonates with all kinds of people. I was doing a Q&A after a screening, and a man stood up and said, 'Anybody who works for a big company, a secretary, anyone who's part of the machinery—we're all backup singers.' He kind of hit it on the head, it's something that we all have to deal with."