'Twenty Feet from Stardom' brings background singers to the forefront

Feb 21, 2013

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

What happens when you end up in the background of someone else’s accomplished dreams? That’s the central question in documentarian Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom. The film will be screened at the True/False Film Festival

Neville spent months interviewing back-up singers whose voices you’ve definitely heard, but whose names you probably don't know: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and Judith Hill.

The film comes to True/False after its premiere at Sundance Film Festival, where it became not only a favorite, but also the first of the fest to get picked up for distribution. KBIA’s Rehman Tungekar interviewed Neville and found out how making the film changed his music-listening experience for the rest of his life. 

What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?

It’s a story about people with incredible talent who probably should have been stars and for whatever reason - and each person has their own story - they didn’t become a star. Sometimes they chose not to be, sometimes they had bad luck, sometimes it’s just the roll of the roulette wheel. What the film becomes is, “How do you deal with not achieving all of your dreams?” I think that’s really the interesting thing you want to look at. 

What you realize is that back-up singing is about supporting an artist and supporting each other. It’s not about me, it’s about us. Background singers by temperament are incredibly generous and selfless people. People who spend their lives making other people look good has actually become much more of an emotionally resonant thing for me than even I realized.

Were they glad to be back-up singers, or were they kind of resentful that they weren’t in the lead?

I think people that have made a career out of being a back-up singer have made peace that they’re not a star, either by choice or design, or fate. And people who can’t make peace with that... Their egos won’t let them be backup singers forever.  They’ll wash out of the business. There are a lot of people who passed through the back-up singing world and eventually have to leave it because it’s just too painful to them.

But the people that have made a life out of being a back-up singer, I think they realize that it’s a blessing in disguise. A number of singers I talk to said things like, “Look, I’ve seen a lot of lead singers and they’ve had one hit and their careers’ over in five years, but I’ve had a career for 30 years.” If it’s really about the music and about the love of that and singing and harmony, it’s actually kind of an amazing career to have.

Did your perception of back-up singers change as you made this film?

I didn’t know who they were when I started. What I came to see very quickly is that they pretty much all of them came out of the church. I mean, where do you learn to be a back-up singer? In choir. 

Almost to a person, they all come to a church. Which not only informs them as artists, singers, but I think it informs their temperament. There’s something about serving someone. I think religious training [helps them] not only vocally, but spiritually too.

Something else that I’ve noticed as I retrained my ears in the years of making this film and listening to records: I was amazed at all the great songs that I'd suddenly realized hinged on great back-up vocals. You know,“Big Time” by Peter Gabriel. “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan. All the Joe Cocker songs. And it completely made me listen to music differently.” 

Twenty Feet From Stardom will be screened at the True/False Film Festival twice: Saturday, March 2 at 6 p.m. and Sunday, March 3 at 7:30 p.m. 

One of the film's main subjects, Merry Clayton, is perhaps best known for hitting the ridiculously high notes in The Rolling Stones' 1969 hit "Gimme Shelter." In this 2006 live version of the song, one of the film's other main subjects, Lisa Fischer, performs with the Stones. Fischer will be present at the film's screenings at True/False. 

Watch a Sundance special interview with director Morgan Neville, here: