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Morgan Neville on Twenty Feet From Stardom

Twenty Feet from Stardom

Backup singers, the ones who provide delicate harmony, who fill out so many of American popular music’s most famous songs, rarely if ever get their due. With Twenty Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville sought to change that. A big-hearted, engrossing, pleasurably watchable tribute to the underheralded work of dozens of key performers from the golden age of Blues, Rock, Soul and RnB, the film is a delightful recognition of artists who have long toiled in the shadows of some of American music’s most legendary performers. Emmy award winner Neville, whose past films have included well-received profiles of a gallery of major artists such as Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Hank WilliamsThe Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam on top of pictures about Memphis’ Stax Records and Manhattan’s legendary Brill Building, brings long overdue recognition and focus to the world of black female backup singers, many of whom were reared in the musical tradition of the Black Protestant Church, with its prevalent call and response structural patterns that form the basis of so many hits from this era.

Many of these women would go on to often lucrative but mostly anonymous careers making the songs of artists like Ray Charles, Tina Turner, and Phil Spector zip. The names Mable John, Susaye Greene, Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer may not mean much to you now, but after seeing, Twenty Feet From Stardom, you’ll likely never forget them again. Centering primarily on the evolution of Love, Clayton and Fischer’s careers, the film expands out into a touching ode to an increasingly antiquated skillset — as the film delicately explores, backup singers are often done away with in an era in which expensive in-studio recording is increasingly rare and digital tuning and looping give home-studio technicians the ability to approximate the sound of backup singers without paying human beings. Mixing archival television footage from concerts and live TV performances with contemporaneous interviews and studio performances, the film is a pitch-perfect evocation of some mighty and previously under-appreciated careers.

Twenty Feet From Stardom opens via TWC/Radius on Friday.

Morgan Neville
Morgan Neville

Filmmaker: You’re a veteran music documentary producer and director. Did this subject matter emerge from making those other films in a direct or tangential way?

Neville: Stories about singers and songwriters have always really interested me. The music business stuff, the making of songs, I’ve always really liked that stuff a lot. In a way, this isn’t totally disconnected from that, but this subject is really a different thing. I love telling the story behind the song, but revealing something that will make you hear that song differently. That was very much the case with this film.

The idea came from my producer, Gil Friesen. It was not my idea. I have to give him all the credit in the world. He used to be President of A&M Records. He was an amazing record guy, been in the business forever. He was retired and after going to a Leonard Cohen concert it occurred to him that backup singers are interesting and he talked himself into maybe trying to get a movie made. When I sat down with him the first time, he was looking for a director. A mutual friend introduced us. He said, “I need to make a film about backup singers,” and I said, “That’s really interesting because I actually don’t know that much about backup singers,” even though I had done a lot of films about music. And so I asked him what the take was on the singers and he said, “That’s your job.” Which is kind of fun. And we weren’t even positive in the beginning that we were going to make a film. So I think the first thing was, let’s figure out what this world’s about and see if there is a film here.

So we started by doing 50 oral histories of backup singers. From that we quickly realized there was a film here to make and we did. It was kind of a different process for me, but a good one. The subject of backup singers is so huge, it could have been anything. The hardest part of making this film was opening it and eliminating things from it that I thought couldn’t make the film and I had to come to a definition of what backup singers I was going to talk about in this film. So I made the decision that I wasn’t going to talk about girl groups and I wasn’t going to talk about Nashville, I wasn’t going to talk about the expatriated backup singers in England. I wanted it to be about these African-American voices that came into popular music and changed something. Those are the stories I was responding to most strongly from the women I was meeting. So that was it. There was no map at all. Even trying to think about songs that are backup-singer-intensive songs is really tough. I just listened to song and kept a list of songs that I knew really well that I’d realize was based on a backup hook. Then when I met these women and they would tell me stories about songs they sing on, it would just bring it all back, would add new information to it, which I loved. I’ll never listen to “Sweet Home Alabama” in the same way again.

Filmmaker: So there was an incredible amount of investigation to do of this large, interlocking group of individuals that you met with to decide who you wanted to profile?

Neville: There was, absolutely. It was me, it was Gil and I also have to mention Kate Rogers, who was our other producer, who was really good on a lot of digging and day-to-day archival work. Finding these women, all that. It was a collective effort. We made the whole thing in 20 months. It’s not that long in documentary terms. We shot for about 11 months, 10 months, something like that. Then we started editing, but I kept shooting throughout the whole edit just so I could have that dialogue back and forth between the edit bay and what was happening out there. So we kept shooting and investigating and a lot of stuff I didn’t know until I was editing, what was going to fit necessarily.

There was a male singer I spent a lot of time with, there was a white singer I spent a lot of time with who were great characters and great singers but their experiences were so different than these African-American women, and all of their experiences were so similar, that I felt like by having the right group of characters, I could create more of a singular narrative. I didn’t want it to feel like an anthology, I wanted it to all feel like it belonged together. By focusing on these women whose stories echo each others, it create a larger, more epic story of the backup singer. But, like I said, it wasn’t easy; there were so many other interesting tangents that I was tested by that I resisted.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult story to tell that you resisted as you say? What did you cut that was the most painful to do away with?

Neville: There are so many stories. Probably the hardest for me, and I didn’t fully flesh out the story because I knew it was too big, it was almost it’s own film, is the story of Gloria Jones. Gloria is in our film a few times. She’s wearing a white suit and has a hat and a sort of gravelly voice. Gloria sang the original “Tainted Love”, she moved to London in the late 60s while touring with Joe Cocker, she fell in love with Marc Bolan, joined T.Rex. She had Marc Bolan’s son. She was driving the car when it crashed and he was killed and in that accident she damaged her vocal chords. She left the music business and now runs the Marc Bolan School of Music in Sierra Leone, Africa.

Filmmaker: Wow.

Neville: So that story alone is incredible, but she and Mary were really great, but I felt like you couldn’t tell both their stories in the same film and her story was so big and so different that it really deserves its own film unfortunately. Things like that are so painful but, you know, amazing too.

Filmmaker: How do you farm out responsibilities to various individuals on your team for a doc like this? Do you get involved in researching archival footage research yourself? It seems like you had an exhaustive trove of stuff to glean from.

Neville: I’ve done a ton of music docs. Particularly having done super intensive archival docs like Pearl Jam: 20, I know where a lot of bodies are buried. I worked with a really experienced footage researcher, Jessica Berman. I worked with her on the Stones doc and she’s just incredible at music footage research. I get involved in it too, definitely. The hardest part about this film was that nobody ever thinks about backup singers. If you go to an archive and say show me great footage of backup singers, they have nothing. Nobody looks at a great Tina Turner performance and says, “Tina Turner had great backup singers!” It’s all about Tina Turner. So I had to do research where you research everybody who had backup singers and hope to find shots that actually showed the backup singers. That was actually really difficult. The conundrum of trying to find them is exactly the same conundrum of their careers; they’re by definition, hidden. It was tough, but every little nugget I found was gold. Occasionally there would be a song I loved and I’d find footage of it and there wouldn’t be a single shot of the backup singers. Or occasionally I’d find a great performance by the backup singers, but it wouldn’t be any of the singers in our film and it felt too incongruous to wedge it in. Leonard Cohen, I would have love to gotten him in there; he’s amazing. There is this incredible Humble Pie performance on YouTube, with Shirley Mathews in it and Vonetta Fields — if you get a chance [to see it], it’s awesome — but I had to resist it, I had to resist that urge to make it an anthology, or a discography, all of these things that the real music geek inside of me wanted. I had to deny because I was really trying to make it a singular narrative.

Filmmaker: How many cuts of your films do you open up for suggestions and comments? Do you do this often as you’re working through post?

Neville: I definitely test screen my films for friends. I don’t do it that many times, but maybe four times or so to a small group of people just to get feedback. Part of it is that you lose perspective on things and part of it is that you’re trying to gauge what an audience needs to know and what you want to tell them. One thing that was really valuable that came out of that, at the first test screening, I was talking about a white singer I had spent some time with earlier, Jill Lowery, that pretty, white Australian singer that sings with Sting, I filmed a lot with her. She’s an amazing singer, articulate, beautiful, and I filmed her when all this stuff was going on in her life, it was unfolding, and it was all involved with backup singing. I put her into an early cut and a friend of mine said, “She’s great, but she’s in a different movie.” I knew that, but part of me was trying to see if I could fool the audience, so they wouldn’t notice. Things like that where you see how it plays and you know you’re not going to get away with it.

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