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20 Feet from Stardom - Filmmaker Neville Morgan Serenades Backup Vocalists

Twenty feet is the typical stretch separating backup singers from a star vocalist. Happily, more than physical distance is sized up in 20 Feet from Stardom, the new documentary about backup artists from filmmaker Morgan Neville.

 “Being a backup singer is not just about talent--it’s about psychology,” Neville recenty told from acouch in his Los Angeles production company. His film puts a dozen or so backup careers on their owncouch, giving viewers a rare glimpse into the performance shadows.

 A Grammy-nominated documentarian whose subjects have included Aretha Franklin, Stax Records and Johnny Cash, Neville draws affecting stories from such talents as Darlene Love, MerryClayton, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill (as seen in photo 1) One of the satisfactions of his film is that it gives top billing to these background singers even as it features commentary from the lead acts they accompany, from Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke to The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Sting.

The project is traceable to another bold name: Leonard Cohen. As Neville recounted, Gil Friesen, the former president of A&M Records, smoked a joint before attending a Leonard Cohen concert and became fixated on the backup singers. Curious about their lives, Friesen sought out books and documentaries but encountered a void. So he produced this film. He would later say it was the most expensive joint he’d ever smoked.

One of the highs of 20 Feet derives from harmony--not just listening to it, but grasping what those who do it for a living often experience. And as the film shows, those who do it are mostly African-American women who began singing in the church choir where their fathers were preachers. On the heavenly side, there's "the blend," the transcendent moment when singers lose themselves in the higher harmonics. "It's this blissful experience of serving something that's greater than yourself that's spiritual and selfless," said Neville.

thalo: But there's also a hellish side to backup singing…

Morgan Neville: You’ve got to have a psychological makeup that can deal with, frankly, humiliation, which is part of the job. And that can mean having to wear something degrading or being told to stand under the stage or being called dancers, not singers, by critics. They’re kind of invisible, just adornments, to the casual viewer. But what you realize is they’re a huge, critical part of the sound.

th: Beyond paradise and damnation, don’t these backup singers also face purgatory? In the film, formerRayette Dr. Mable John sounds a cautionary note about black women needing to know their worth, “The breakdown is when a woman doesn’t know who she is and she settles for less."

MN: It’s complicated, because on the one hand it’s great to celebrate being altruistic and supportive. On the other hand, you come out of it with an inherent sadness: isn’t it too bad you’re not better known, better celebrated, better paid? Backup singing can be a crutch for insecure people. If you’re really good at it and you have a good career, it’s too comfortable to risk it for something more. Singers don’t have to challenge themselves as their talent deserves.

th: Had backup singing been the province of white males, would things have been different?

MN: Very different. You can’t think of a lot of them. When I think about white male backup singers--Mike McDonald was, Michael Bolton was, Mark Cohen was--they all got careers and got out of backup singing. Was it because they were white males? Maybe.

th: Music provided an underground railroad for black female gospel voices to infiltrate American pop music before, during and after the civil rights and women’s lib movements. How would you characterize their emergence from the racial and socio-economic margins into the mainstream? (as seen in photos 2 - 3)

MN: I’ve called it a “secret history.”

th: Any epiphanies about your own career?

MN: As a documentarian, a lot of what I do is about telling other people's stories and trying to disappear into the filmmaking. I've been appreciating that sometimes it's okay to let out your inner diva.

Photo credits:

Photo 1: Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer belting out “Lean on Me.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Photo 2: Darlene Love and The Blossoms courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Photo 3: Merry Clayton courtesy of The Weinstein Company.