"20 Feet From Stardom" is an exceptional music documentary that shines the spotlight on some wonderfully talented backup singers -- gifted musicians who were never fully able to make that short walk to the front of the stage to become successful solo artists. Drawn from over five decades of talented artists, along with interviews from superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, the work joins a pantheon of other exceptional music documentaries that do more than simply present a series of tunes, but focus on some of the most intense and important aspects of creative expression, of the vagaries of "success," and the challenges and luck involved that far supersede anything as fundamental as talent.
Moviefone spoke with director Morgan Neville about his process and the fleeting, elusive nature of fame.
Moviefone: What was the impetus for this story? What drew you to these wonderful women?
Morgan Neville: I have to give [producer] Gil Friesen the credit. Gil was president of A&M Records for a long time. He had the idea of making a film about them, but he had no idea what that film would be, so he found me. I asked, "That's interesting, what is it, what's the take?" And he said, "That's your job, I don't know!"
There was no road map whatsoever as to what this could be. It's a huge topic and there were no books, no articles, no websites even. It was really uncharted territory. When you meet one backup singer, you're two generations away from meeting every backup singer, they're all so interconnected in a tight community. The hardest part was cutting stuff out. As much as I love girl groups, or want to talk about the use of backup singers in disco, I felt like the most captivating stories were of the African-American female voices that largely came in to the studios in the '60s and transformed pop music. That's a world that came and has largely gone. It's not extinct but close to it at this point.
I've long felt that "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" paved the way for this kind of work, including your previous Stax documentary. How much was that film a touchstone (if at all) for what you were trying to do in terms of shaping a very large story into something that worked narratively for a feature film?
It actually wasn't at all! I watched it when it came out 10 years ago, and I've never watched it again. In part I wanted to stay away from that. I wanted our film to feel as different as possible, even though it covers similar territory. "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is really about a family, these people who all worked with each other, year in and year out, doing all of this incredible music. It's much more analogous to the Stax documentary where you have Booker T. and the M.G.s, who were not only their own band, but also backed up Otis Redding and Same and Dave and on and on.
The backup singers I focused on were, for the most part, these voices for hire who would go into different sessions and they didn't know if they were going to sing with Buck Owens, or sing with James Brown or Frank Zappa. They had to be incredibly versatile and they're working without a net. The Motown stuff's great, but I just felt like I was trying to focus on these voices for hire that really had to be good and were out there working in the studios for everybody at the same time. It's a slight distinction but at least for me it was a way to slice it a little bit differently.
I see a lot of music documentaries that are completely terrible, but transcendent ones like yours tend to be not only beautiful documentations of a very interesting musical historical period, but also of something much more, about the creative process, about the nature of stardom.
I think we're onto something there, which is that music docs aren't just about music, it's a chance to tell all kinds of other stories. The music is just a Trojan horse into a story that brings with it emotion and history and familiarity but once you're there, you can tell all kinds of stories. To me, the Stax documentary is a civil rights film. That's what I love about making music documentaries, we can tell other stories, yet have this starting place that gives you a way in that people are going to understand. It's much easier than making a film about somebody nobody's ever heard of and they have no connection to whatsoever.
Are there particular films, documentaries or fiction films, that really ended up being a touchstone for you?
I take things from everywhere. I would always send films to the editors, everything from the Quincy Jones doc "Listen Up" to "How to Survive a Plague," the AIDS documentary, just because I thought it was a really deft handling of archive footage and balancing a lot of characters. I feel documentary is no different than narrative, insofar as it comes down to story and character. That's why I feel polemical documentaries can feel like taking medicine, because they're making important points with a capital "I" but they don't always remember to put the story and the character first.
How did you go about choosing the film's participants?
Everybody in the film has a connection to one of our main characters. Sting or Stevie or Bruce or Mick aren't just speaking in bland platitudes about how great backup singers are. I liked the specificity of it because it anchors it, and it's something they could speak about knowledgeably.
It was great doing those interviews because it's something they all know about and they've never done an interview about it before. They know better than anybody what the backup singers bring.
I love Leonard Cohen and he's always had amazing backup singers, but he wasn't connected to any of the singers in my film, so I didn't talk to him.
Was there a strong push to also show contemporary backup singers?
What singers go through today hasn't changed that much from 50 years ago. One of the big takeaways is that in no way is talent the thing that divides those who succeed from those who don't. Talent is way down the list, somewhere behind ambition, luck, and timing.
What in the end was the biggest challenge of getting this story across?
When I first started putting the film together and getting these people's stories, it seemed like I was going to be making a really sad film with so many hard luck stories and so many missed opportunities. What I realized was the more I got to know these ladies, their stories didn't end when their opportunity to break out did. The film becomes more about what happens when you don't achieve all of your dreams, how do you make peace with the life that you have rather than the life you dreamed of having?
I think it's a really important lesson to learn, and these women have handled it with such grace. By and large, they've made peace with the life they've had. The amazing thing is now the film is actually providing new opportunities for these people, so now they're saying, "Well, maybe I wasn't supposed to be famous when I was 30, maybe I'm supposed to be famous now that I'm 60!"
"20 Feet to Stardom" opens in select theatres (including Toronto) on July 5.