Several years ago, former A&M Records head Gil Friesen was stoned at a Leonard Cohen concert when he became fixated on Cohen's backup singers. The result of Friesen's musings is Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary that explores the culture of such supporting singers. Friesen once quipped to its director, Morgan Neville, that the movie was "the most expensive joint I ever smoked," and the final product premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival.
"This is a story about people whose fingerprints are all over the music we know but we have no idea who they are," Neville, a self-described "hardcore music geek," tells Rolling Stone. His other credits include Troubadours, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story and Johnny Cash's America. He is currently at work on a film about the rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley.
Friesen, who passed away from cancer in December, saw the final film before his death and knew it would premiere at Sundance. It was purchased last week by the Weinstein Company's label Radius-TWC and, according to Neville, is set for a summer release.
"You could have talked about Nashville, you could have talked about girl groups. . . To me, the interesting story was the rise of these black voices from the church into the studios and onto vinyl," says the director. "What was Lou Reed singing about [in "A Walk on the Wild Side"]? This is what he was singing about."
The film includes interviews with artists who are notable for their use of backup singers, including Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting. Many well-known supporting vocalists are also interviewed, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Gloria Jones and Dr. Mable John.
These performers – who Neville says "can often sing circles around lead singers" – have produced a soulful, harmonic blend for decades, one derived from the Motown, rock and R&B of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. "There was really kind of a heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s," Neville explains. "The Brits were coming and they were pale white guys and they thought, 'Hey, if I am really into R&B and soul, why don't I just invite black singers to come onstage with me?'"
In Twenty Feet, Neville also explores the psychology of standing in the shadows of super-stardom and the lack of individual identity – which, depending on the singer, can feel like bliss or purgatory. He also looks at how relatively recent changes in the recording business – including lead singers recording their own backing tracks – caused the backup singer scene to dry up.
"I asked them, 'When do you think it changed?' And one singer said, 'In 1993,'" Neville says. "Hip-hop, grunge in the 1990s – all those things were going on as well as changes in taste, business and technology." What hasn't changed is the talent of these artists – and soon, their story will be told.