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Twenty Feet From Stardom Director Morgan Neville on His Own "Cinderella Moment"

If there was one standout moment during the 30th installment of the Miami International Film Festival, it was Darlene Love's performance of "Lean on Me" that followed the opening-night screening of Twenty Feet From Stardom, the documentary about back-up singers in which she is featured.

(We've already written about how her pipes threatened the very structural integrity of the Gusman.)

Twenty Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville's documentary about African-American female back-up singers and the first film to sell at this year's Sundance Film Festival, will be widely released to theaters June 14 by the Weinstein Company and is being put forth by many industry watchers as proof of the Weinstein brothers' resurgence following their separation from Miramax.

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- Twenty Feet From Stardom: Darlene Love Dominates at MIFF Opening Night


"I'm having my Cinderella moment here," Neville tells Cultist, "which in a way is kind of the back-up-singer experience. I think we're all having this Cinderella moment together here, but as much as I'm enjoying it, so much of my enjoyment is watching other people watch and appreciate these singers. That's just been so cool. So many of these women are religious, and they kept saying, "Morgan, we're praying for you,' as we're making the film. 'We're praying it's going to be a big hit.' I don't think there's ever been a documentary more prayed over than our documentary.

"Which is good," he continues. "It's delivering."

Though Neville is a veteran music documentarian, having produced the recent Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane and directed flicks about everyone from Johnny Cash to Iggy & the Stooges, Twenty Feet From Stardom is one of those rare documentaries that not only receives universal acclaim but also transcends its subject to explore far larger themes.  

Explains Neville: "Ideally, the film is about more than just music. It becomes about how do you deal with not accomplishing your dreams, perseverance, disappointment, faith -- all these kinds of issues come up. So we had these amazing Q&As with people crying and talking about their own experiences. And the thing that was really amazing was that our back-up singers, our stars of the film, finally are getting the thing that the film is about them not getting."

For the first time in his career, Neville feels like a documentary he has worked on deserves a sequel. These new experiences he's filming bits and pieces of now wouldn't be part of it, however.

"There are at least four or five other amazing artists and stories that are on the cutting-room floor. People like Gloria Jones, who is barely in there. She had the original hit of "Tainted Love" in the '60s that Soft Cell covered later. And she was one of this handful of African-American female singers who moved to London to become session singers. She ended up falling in love with Marc Bolan from T. Rex and having a kid with him. She was driving the car when he died, and she damaged her vocal cords and couldn't sing after that. And now she runs the Marc Bolan School of Music in Sierra Leone, Africa. Just her story is a film."

 

Editing the archival footage that Neville had took longer than a year. When he produced Crossfire Hurricane, he was working with documentary material from giants like D.A. Pennebaker, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Frank, and the Maysles. But as he sifted through reel after reel of forgotten television appearances for use in Twenty Feet From Stardom, Neville found himself watching many performances that likely hadn't been seen since their original broadcast.

"If anything, we're the first people to touch that footage in decades. I'm the first person who's ever licensed most of that footage, and I'm probably the last person who's ever going to license most of that footage, because most people want the same five famous clips and they're not looking for this. Nobody has ever licensed that Merry Clayton clip, and nobody ever will again. But that was part of the fun, trying to find that stuff, and it's actually very difficult."

One of the most arresting sequences in the film is when Neville juxtaposes Mick Jagger with Merry Clayton's memories of their vocals on the Rolling Stones song "Gimme Shelter." The details are vividly fixed in their minds, down to Merry's hair curlers that she didn't take out after being called into the studio in the wee hours of the morning.

"They remember it in exactly the same way, and then to have that isolated track of Merry's vocal where you can actually hear Mick cheering her on is just unbelievable. In retrospect, oh my God, that's one of the most famous rock songs of all time, but what you realize is that when these singers go in to do a session, it's not. It's just some gig that's paying whatever. They're doing tons of sessions, and they're surprised when a session becomes a big deal because it's not a big deal when they do it. It becomes a big deal afterward."

 

One of the obstacles Neville found was that very few back-up singers were filmed in the live performances he focuses on from the '60s and '70s.

"The camera never cuts to them," Neville says, "and when they sing on songs, they generally come in on the second chorus, third verse, somewhere there. So part of it was I just wanted to hear them sing."

This meant he had to set up recording sessions so he could capture the singers' power and vulnerability with the proper focus and fidelity. Neville, who has spent years listening to these voices, still seems emotionally transported just thinking about them.

"You realize," he says, "particularly watching someone's face like Lisa [Fischer]'s, just how much character is revealed by watching somebody sing. It's such an intimate thing when you're looking at someone's face and they're singing."

Though Twenty Feet From Stardom is ultimately about so much more, it begins and ends with the human voice.

"Like, with Lisa, I just said, 'I want you to go into the studio and just make shit up.' She had a friend who played piano and just went for it. And you realize, just hearing them sing, I kept saying, 'As long as they're singing, we're gold.'"

Twenty Feet From Stardom opens in theaters June 14.

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Olympia Theater at Gusman Center

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